As an undergraduate at Mount Holyoke College, Elizabeth Co taught at the Bronx High School of Science, where she found that “high school students were too busy being high school students” to fully engage in classroom learning. Years later, as a PhD student at the University of California, San Francisco, Co taught graduate dental students, who often seemed too focused on a single aspect of a lesson to appreciate broader learning opportunities.
Now, as a College of Arts & Sciences senior lecturer in biology, Co is teaching undergraduate students, and she finds their attitude toward learning to be just right. “They’re so much fun to persuade and inspire,” she says. “They are so excited about everything.”
One thing that Co’s students are clearly excited about is her enthusiasm for her subject matter. In fact, their excitement about that is so conspicuous that it persuaded the Provost’s Faculty Teaching Awards Committee to choose Co as one of this year’s Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching recipients. She will receive the award at the University’s 145th Commencement on Sunday, May 20.
Michaela Mazure (Sargent’19) who took Co’s Human Physiology class in the fall and then her Infectious Diseases class this spring, was not surprised by the acknowledgment of Co’s dedication. Mazure recalls the time that Co asked a class with many students to come up with an argument against vaccines, and Mazure’s suggestion elicited an uncharacteristically brief “Hmm, interesting” from Co. Mazure assumed that was the end of the discussion, but hours later she got an email from Co with a detailed explanation of the biology involved in Mazure’s proposition.
“I was amazed,” she says. “First, she knew my name in a giant lecture class, and second, she took the time out of her day to give me a better answer than she could in class. I was really touched by that.”
“You can hear the enthusiasm in her voice when she’ll mention an unusual fact and say, ‘Isn’t that just so cool?’” says Mazure. “It makes you smile. She is a true inspiration and I consider myself extremely fortunate for having the privilege to learn from her.”
The Metcalf awards committee notes that the kind of large introductory courses that Co often teaches are famously challenging, and those who teach them rarely elicit rave reviews. Despite that handicap, the committee reports, students describe Co as a “knowledgeable,” “enthusiastic” instructor who is “very good at explaining difficult and confusing topics” and makes students “passionate about learning.” They especially appreciate her use of “personal stories and real-life examples” that “deepen understanding of topics.”
“It’s a tremendous honor to be chosen for a Metcalf Award,” says Co, who has a PhD in biology from UC San Francisco. “When I began teaching large lectures, I didn’t want the size of my classes to limit the educational experiences I could offer to my students. I’ve tried a lot of different methods, and honestly, many of them failed. It took several years to find a balance that allowed me to bring active and interactive learning into large lectures and to find a means to offer feedback and assistance to individual students. Receiving a Metcalf Award is undoubtedly a highlight of my teaching career, but it is also an encouragement to keep up the perennial effort to improve teaching and learning in my courses.”
Co says she always tries to make every student feel like she’s teaching to them. “I try hard to learn everyone’s name,” she says. “And we work in small groups, where I can give lots of personalized feedback.”
Some of her feedback is aimed at raising students’ grade point average, and some strives to achieve more lasting attributes. Gillian King (Sargent’20) says Co “consistently challenges her students to not only improve their academic performance, but intensify their role as informed citizens.”
The Metcalf committee writes that Co is constantly refining her classroom technique in order to promote her students’ intellectual curiosity, absorption of material, and self-awareness of preferred learning style. It also notes that when she came to BU in 2012 after teaching at UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco, she brought a scientist’s acuity and methodology to her teaching methods. Her innovative use of technology in presentation and class participation has “transformed the lecture hall into a beehive of engagement and discussion.” Colleagues often seek her out for advice on how they can use technology to improve their own teaching.
Ann Cudd, dean of Arts & Sciences, says her college is “fortunate to have an instructor who brings so much passion and innovation to introductory biology and physiology courses that serve hundreds of health science and biology majors every year.”
Co’s colleages at CAS are as effusive in their praise as her students. “I have known Elizabeth since she started at BU,” says Kathryn Spilios, a CAS senior lecturer in biology and director of instructional labs. “I have learned so much from her. She is constantly trying new ways to engage our students, especially in a large lecture setting. She is a masterful lecturer who has the confidence and poise to guide students effectively through complex topics.”
Angela Seliga, manager of the CAS physiology lab, says working with Co has been one of the best things about working at BU. “To quote another faculty member in our department, Fred Wasserman, a previous Metcalf recipient, ‘Liz is the crown jewel of our department,’” says Seliga.
She offers up another quote, one that comes from one of Co’s students, saying something that is rarely uttered on university campuses: “Studying for Dr. Co’s exams is fun!”
A gift from the late Arthur G. B. Metcalf (SED’35, Hon.’74), a BU Board of Trustees chair emeritus and former professor, funds the Metcalf awards, created in 1973 and presented at Commencement. The Metcalf Cup and Prize winner receives $10,000 and the Metcalf Award winners receive $5,000 each. A University committee selects winners based on statements of nominees’ teaching philosophy, supporting letters from colleagues and students, and classroom observations of the nominees.
The winner of this year’s Metcalf Cup and Prize is Brooke Blower, a College of Arts & Sciences associate professor of history. James Wolff, a School of Public Health associate professor of global health, is the recipient of the other Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching.
Find more information about Commencement here.