The Beauty of Experiments
A native east-coaster who’s discovered he really likes calling Los Angeles home, Dean of Students Ernie Lavroney works during EXPLO’s off-season as a science teacher with a PhD in microbiology. Academia called, but he followed his passion for teaching and working with students. During our interview, Ernie talks about the need for creativity in education, his experience at EXPLO at Yale, and his love of helping students become their best selves.
As one of EXPLO’s newest recruits, what inspired you to come on board?
I love working with kids, and I especially love working with this age group. I teach science to 7th to 12th graders in North Hollywood, from general science, which I teach to the younger students, to biology and forensics. I’ve known Brent Ruter (Co-Head of the Senior Program) since college. I was his RA at Bowdoin College, and we’ve remained friends since.
I’ve been hearing about EXPLO for years, but this past spring, something clicked. It began when I posted some experiments I was working on with my students online, and Brent saw them. He was really interested in the experiments, and by how invested the students were in their work. And from there, he started talking about EXPLO.
We spoke at length about EXPLO’s philosophy — the belief that if you make learning fun and engaging, students will respond. Having seen it manifest with my own students, I was curious to see it work on a larger scale. But since the start of First Session, what has amazed me even more has been the great sense of community. With between 600-700 students per session from all over the country and all over the world, it’s incredible to see how quickly everyone has become part of this larger community.
Coming from a teaching background, how has it been stepping into an administrative role?
Actually the work I’m doing here and the work I do in the classroom are very similar. In both realms, it’s all about the students — building a connection with them, and letting them know that this is a place where they can feel comfortable and safe. The Dean of Students Office at EXPLO is not like the principal’s office at a 10-month school, or even the vice principal’s office, for that matter. We are not the place students go when they’ve done something bad and need to be reprimanded or punished.
Here at EXPLO, we don’t work in that framework. We are the place students come to if they need help, if they need guidance, if they need someone to talk to. Our door is always open to them, and because we try to be as present on campus as possible, and get to know as many students as possible, they know we are a resource and are always here to help.
If, however, a student does make a mistake, then it’s time to sit down and have a serious talk. Mistakes do happen, and when they do, we don’t sweep them under the rug. We address them as quickly and as thoroughly as possible by bringing the student in and talking about the mistake in question. We go through the event in question, we make sure we have all the facts, and take it from there.
Every scenario is different, because every student is different. So how we address each issue depends on all of those factors. We ask them, “Do you know that what you did was wrong? Do you see why it’s wrong? How can we change that?” Ninety percent of the time, students get it. They understand the repercussions from their actions, and they’re eager to make a change. There are infinite teachable moments with students and staff, and this is one of the most important.
You seem to have a natural affinity for helping students — and staff — think outside the box. Is this something that plays a role in your classroom back in California?
Yes. I suppose you could say I’ve always gone my own way. I earned my PhD in microbiology, immunology, and genetics from UCLA, and did post-doc work at Cornell Medical, where I worked on the hendra virus — the interplay of host and pathogen. I’ve always been fascinated by their co-evolution and how host and pathogen always try to outcompete one another for dominance. I suppose I could have continued my career in academia or research, but for me, the best thing I can do is share my love of science with my students.
The way I teach could be considered a little different. I believe children have a much greater capacity to learn than we give them credit for, and I bring that philosophy into my classroom. It’s the same philosophy we have here at EXPLO — that if we give students the tools and the responsibility, they will thrive. And I see it so much, both here and in California.
In my classes, instead of only learning from text books, my students study viruses. They read scientific publications, from Nature to Science — serious academic journals. And they have to figure out, how do you read a journal article? It’s very different from reading a text book. How do you get past the lingo, the science-speak, and all those acronyms?
That’s what my students discover, because in my classroom, they become scientists themselves. One of my favorite projects was when my students read articles from Discovery Magazine and Science Jr., and contrast them with the journal articles. Their assignments? Present their findings, and write a journal article for layman in their own words. There were two rules: it had to be easy to understand, and they had to explain why their findings would be interesting to high school students. They turned in some pretty incredible work.
I also work for an after-school program, covering the sciences portion, and it became a project that I took on with my high school students. Actually, it became a project that I facilitated, but my students led, with equipment and supplies donated by my high school. And my students are actually are in charge of developing the science curriculum that they then teach to the middle school students.
They were really excited, but pretty quickly it hit them: How do we do that? How do we teach a class and make lesson plans? So we sat down, mapped it out, and developed labs. Since this was an after-school program, we wanted to make it a completely different experience then what the students might get during their regular school days, so we made a decision: lectures no longer than 20 minutes, and labs that stretched through the rest of the period. The kids loved it!
Wonderful! What was the experiment?
We did Mendel’s experiment. We pollinated peas. [Laughs.] But the students were so excited. First, they loved learning from high school students, because as middle school students they actually look up to the older students so getting them interested in the experiments was a lot easier than we had anticipated. And the high school students loved the responsibility, and really worked to make the lessons their own.
I think what really gets their attention, what really makes them excited to come to class every day, is how creative a process scientific discovery really is. Take DNA. Scientists across the globe figured it out. They cracked the mystery. That’s not the stodgy, historical science, full of the image of older white males. Science is about creativity. It’s about taking the road less traveled and seeing where it will lead. It is an art. You can have wonderful book knowledge, but if you have good hands and a spirit of exploration, you can actually discover the unknown. That is the art.
And really, it’s that same spirit that drew me to EXPLO. In my classes, I encourage my students to think creatively and logically. How do you begin to solve a problem? It something that translates to everything, and it’s the kind of thinking I see every day at EXPLO. And because students here are able to choose their courses of study, I see them taking more ownership over what they’re learning. Perhaps more than anything, I love that students are able to experiment here, to explore art as a scientist or math as a literature person without the threat of a transcript hanging over their head. We can provide that opportunity, and I love that.
Interview + Photo by Lisa Merlini