A pile of ivory-knotted rope lies on Professor Kurt Fischer’s office floor. Extending the rope in the air revealing its interconnection, Fischer remarks that Kaia Huseby, Ed.M.’07, uses it to teach elementary students about the brain and he hopes to try out the lesson on his own young students.
The rope not only reveals insight into the function of the brain, but also into the Mind, Brain, and Education Program (MBE). In particular, it demonstrates how closely the program’s students and faculty work with one another. In fact, students are partially responsible for the creation and continued evolution of MBE at HGSE.
“Students are big influences on us,” Fischer says. “They are very responsible people and one of the big forces behind the start of the program, as well as how we should change it to make our students’ learning more effective.”
The Mind, Brain, and Education Program began just five years ago nearly a decade after faculty members like Fischer, Professor Howard Gardner, and Lecturer David Rose began planning for a program that would conjoin issues of learning and the brain. The interest of human development students in learning about neuroscience and education helped to move the program along.
“We felt responsible to develop this program because there was so much happening regarding learning and the brain,” Fischer says. Today MBE is the nation’s signature program in learning and the brain, having provided a model for many other universities that are developing similar programs.
The number of students interested in this area of learning also continues to grow, with MBE’s enrollment rate doubling in the past five years. There are now 42 students enrolled in the program, with 15 to 20 percent of them being international. The program draws a unique and diverse group of students each year. While it might be expected that a science teacher would earn a master’s in Mind, Brain, and Education, Fischer says there are many teachers with backgrounds in special education and arts education, as well as from the medical, design, and business fields. Fischer emphasizes that students don’t need to come to HGSE with an extensive background in biology or neuroscience, because they will tackle those topics in their first year.
In fact, Huseby — the MBE alumna who utilizes the rope model in her classroom — is one of those less obvious MBE students, an elementary school teacher who set out to learn more about cognitive development and neuroscience. MBE courses also focus on learning and emotion, universal design, psychological issues, and health.
“The MBE Program andCognitive Development, Education, and the Brain in particular did an excellent job training us to think about the brain not in isolation, but situated in a larger environment which influences it in many ways,” Huseby says. “We talked about our ‘mind/brains’ as part of the body, within a social context, and within a larger culture. All of our HT-100 professors emphasized this.”
Now Huseby brings what she learned at MBE to her classroom of third graders in Santa Cruz, Calif. It was through MBE courses that Huseby learned how to work differently as a teacher. “We cannot underestimate the powerful role that emotion plays in cognition,” she says. “A child who struggles with a particular task (due to learning difficulties, for example) or who is not emotionally engaged processes things differently. I always knew that emotion was important in the learning process, but I hadn’t realized that within the brain, the learning process can be aided or thwarted by the emotions that a person is experiencing. All the work of classroom community building and making emotional connections between the children’s experiences and the material are very much worthwhile on many levels.”
Similarly, Tim Pure, Ed.M.’07, enjoyed the diverse mix of students in the MBE Program and relished the opportunity to work with both professors and teaching fellows.
“The faculty graduate teaching fellows were as critical to experience as my professors and they were vital members of the class,” says Pure, currently working as a learning specialist for Rutgers University. Pure, who researches a rare genetic disorder, says faculty always pointed him in the right direction and made connections with people he wouldn’t ordinarily meet.
Although MBE is ultimately about teaching students about the brain and learning, it is also about listening to its students and creating the best learning environment for them.
“Mind, Brain, and Education gives the groundwork for not only grounding educational practice more firmly in research on brain and cognition but, at the same time, working with our students to help create that grounding in the way we teach and learn together at HGSE,” Fischer says.