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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘We’re Continually Learning, Moving Forward and Building New Bridges and Opportunities for Everyone,’ Says Pamela Gilchrist ’14PHD

Pamela Gilchrist ’14PHD has spent her career preparing educators and students for success through innovations in STEM.

At NC State University, Gilchrist served as the director of The Science House’s Imhotep and Kyran Anderson academies, which both provide STEM programming to underrepresented students. 

As part of her work, she used a National Science Foundation grant to launch a hybrid program that engaged underrepresented high school students, their parents and educators in the study of photonics, or the physical science of light. 

Then, when she earned her degree in the  Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Policy, and Human Development: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis concentration, she researched how educators were able implement what they learned in the photonics program in the classroom.

Gilchrist’s passion for innovation has since led to a new role. She is now the director of K-12 programs at the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus, which will open in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2024. The campus is designed to be a hub for graduate education in computer science and engineering.

“My role includes designing, building and implementing a comprehensive K-12 strategy to prepare students to enter STEM and computing fields,” Gilchrist said. “But it’s even broader than that. It’s working within the community, the schools and industry to ensure that there are identified pathways for students to explore from cradle to career.”

To build bridges between K-12 and higher education, the Virginia Tech Innovation Campus is partnering with Alexandria City School Schools. With more than 15,000 students and over 121 spoken languages, the diverse school district, Gilchrist said, provides an opportunity to increase STEM access for historically underrepresented students.

“When we look at our society, these particular disciplines infuse every area of our life,” Gilchrist said. “It’s so important that students are engaged and are experiencing STEM and computer science through hands-on, project based, engaging ways to develop their skills and competencies and learn to apply and use this knowledge in their own personal postsecondary and life experiences.”

To accomplish that goal, Gilchrist has toured schools and classrooms and engaged with industry leaders with an interest in investing in K-12. She’s also developed a K-12 program strategy to address the needs of teacher professional development, student engagement and industry development.

“Being able to harness the intellectual capacity of higher education and industry and linking it to K-12 early, ongoingly and continuously, is something that really intrigues me,” Gilchrist said. “We want students to be prepared for the unknown, but then also be able to provide for their families and thrive in a world that we are still learning what it will require of us.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

I chose education because it has always been a doorway to opportunities. It’s like a passport to the future. I come from a small rural area: St. Paul’s, North Carolina, in Robeson County. I’m the youngest of 10. My mother and father had less than an eighth grade education, but they instilled the importance of education, and it was a doorway to opportunity to create new ways of knowing, understanding and being, and connecting with others in thoughtful ways. 

I’ve always had this desire to give or to serve, and through education you can serve and still grow and live a full life. I always say: “We’re not living if we’re not learning.” In education, we want to stay fresh; we want to stay relevant. We want to stay innovative and we want to be able to actually flex to the differences and the needs. 

I believe education provides that space, and it also is the one profession that touches every life and makes our society the great place that it is. Being able to connect with people from different walks of life, different experiences, and meeting their needs or sparking their interest is something that continually pushes me as an educator and as a person. Being able to create new options and opportunities is why I chose education. We’re continually learning, moving forward and building new bridges and opportunities for everyone.

How Education Has Shaped Me:

Education has allowed me to continue to be open to learning new things. When I was in high school, I thought: “I’ll never travel abroad” or “Why are we learning this stuff in world history or about British literature?” But education has allowed me to see that you can engage and experience those things and share it back with others. 

I’ve had the opportunity to travel internationally through education — my first international experience was to the United Kingdom — through just being open as an educator and taking on new challenges and continuing to evolve, be in love with and connect with others. 

Education has shaped me to be open to opportunities and persistent in finding ways to connect, build and learn from others and share that in spaces where it may not be accessible. 

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

One thing I enjoyed was having the opportunity to engage in deep discourse about educational research topics with professionals and graduate students from all different backgrounds. I may have come in with a STEM focus, another person may enter this space with a principal leadership focus and another person may be looking at education from a policy perspective, but we’re all able to thoughtfully engage, challenge and prepare each other in that space of scholarship and looking at ways to connect it to practice. 

What I loved was the opportunity that I had to merge theory and practice in ways that could inform policy. That’s the same thing I’m doing now. As the director of K-12 programming, we can look at policy, theory and practice and marry those things in thoughtful ways to produce knowledge in areas where we have made some progress, but where there’s so much more to contribute in that space.

The professors were great. They always found ways to challenge and stretch and prepare us for what’s next. But I think the greatest thing is when you’re pursuing your doctorate degree, you’re preparing for scholarship for a lifetime, so you’re always going to be in this mode of learning, connecting and partnering thoughtfully to build discourse in the research community, but also thinking about how you can produce meaningful change.

What Others Should Know About the NC State College of Education: 

They should know that the College of Education will prepare them to thrive in their profession. They will be equipped, they will be knowledgeable and they will be able to meet the challenges that are put before them. 

NC State has “Think and Do.” Not only are we thinking, but we also do things that make a difference in the lives of people as a land-grant institution.  We’re not just about doing “something.” We’re thinking about making a tremendous difference in the lives of all people in meaningful ways.

The Last Thing I Experienced That Inspired Me:

I like music. Music is a connector on all levels. I went to the Computer Science Teacher Association Conference this summer in Chicago, and we were looking at computer science and ways of embedding it and connecting it into schools or different entities. As part of the conference, we went to the Museum of Science and Industry and we were just dancing. We danced for hours and we allowed our creativity to flow in meaningful ways. That reflects education — there is this impromptu aspect but very intentional. What you’re able to produce together goes beyond — it feeds the soul and also impacts others as well, and creates a platform to move forward. The greatest thing that inspired me was how we were able to connect using music and build relationships in such a small time.

I really believe that my opportunity to serve [as the director of K-12 programs] is something that was meant for me, to be able to connect and build with people I don’t know.  When you look at it, it is a quite daunting role for someone to come to a new area and not know anyone, but still be able to connect and inspire and hear people say, “You’re inspiring me.”

So music, to me, it’s almost like we are tuning ourselves together in some way, and we’re making this music. Either we’re on key or off key, and we’re looking at ways to create a symphony together. That symphony, it joins in a manner when we see common goals, common outcomes and common ways of building and creating success for others, and also for ourselves as we grow together. We’re making music with learning.