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#WhyIChoseEducation: ‘It’s the Love of Science and the Love of Sharing and Conveying That Science,’ Says Rebecca Hite ’16PHD

Have you ever held a live, beating heart? That’s Rebecca Hite’s favorite question to ask K-12 students. 

“They’re always like, ‘No,’ and I say, ‘Good answer,’” said Hite, an associate professor who researches emerging technologies in STEM education at Texas Tech University. “But then I say, would you like to? And that’s when you see their eyes light up and get really excited.”

Of course, the students don’t actually hold a real heart in their hands. Instead, they take advantage of computers that create 3D images that live in front of the screen. Students are able to interact with those images using a stylus that provides haptic feedback, allowing them to feel the virtual heart beat. 

“What’s beautiful about a mixed reality device is that we don’t have to talk about it,” Hite said. “I can just see it and when I put the stylus over it, it says this is your left ventricle; this is your right ventricle.”

Hite, a former science teacher, first became fascinated by the promise of using 3D, haptic-enabled, virtual reality platforms to convey scientific concepts while she was earning her Ph.D. in Learning and Teaching in STEM: Science Education concentration at the NC State College of Education. 

“If I had not had that experience at NC State, I wouldn’t have had that seed, or root, to really flourish in this very exciting and very fruitful research area,” Hite said.  

At Texas Tech, she expanded her initial research focus, exploring whether this type of technology could inspire students to persist in their learning, be useful for students who are neurodivergent or be an effective way to provide social-emotional learning. 

In addition to research and teaching, another one of Hite’s priorities is educational leadership. For example, she serves as the founder and primary director of the Texas Education Policy Fellowship Program, where she has had the opportunity to support educators who have expanded art education in rural communities, researched the effectiveness of STEM endorsements and gone on to become Texas’ teacher of the year. 

“Look at all these people who are doing cool and great things in Texas,” Hite said. “Hopefully, they do feel a little bit more empowered, excited and prepared to meet the challenges of doing that.”

For Hite, earning her doctoral degree in the NC State College of Education was the key to becoming the educator and leader she is today. 

“It has been life changing, the kind of work I’m doing now,” Hite said. “Being a public school teacher in North Carolina was fantastic. But the type of work I’m doing now is really hitting the skill sets I was trained in at NC State.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Why I Chose Education:

When I was growing up, I just always loved science. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. But I also grew up in a very rural area of North Carolina, in Mount Pleasant. Being in a rural area pre-internet, it was like being on the moon. It’s really hard to understand what the opportunities are unless you’ve been directly influenced by them. My parents are both blue collar workers; I’m a first-generation college student. The people who I saw who did science were science teachers and I thought that was just the coolest thing. I loved the idea that they had a lot of passion for science and they were able to convey it to me. 

I see so much potential in STEM. STEM helps you understand the world, but also understand one another. It’s also very analytical. It’s guided by processes. We have theories and laws. Things like that just sing to my soul a little bit. I love the idea of gathering data, thinking about it and then coming to a logical conclusion and sharing that with others and saying, “Am I right? Is there a way to make this better?”

As a teacher, I also saw certain groups of students who just didn’t have the same prior experiences, the kids who didn’t get to go to math camp or have parents who were doctors or lawyers. I just kind of saw myself there and it just really energized me to be like, “I’m not going to just give you a STEM education. I’m going to give you the best dang STEM education I can think of.” Even the kids who said, “I don’t like science,” I could always find those touch points to get them excited about the world around them. 

For me, it can’t just be STEM and it can’t just be education. It has to be both. It’s like they were a package deal, even from the start. It’s the love of science and the love sharing and conveying that science. That, to me, is what’s kept me true to this life mission of STEM education. 

How Education Has Shaped Me:

As a classroom teacher for 13 years prior to graduate school, education has always been part of my work and identity. Ever since my youth, science has been my favorite subject because I saw science everywhere and I loved how science provided a framework for understanding all aspects of life. As a teacher, I saw engaging my students in the pursuit of attaining scientific knowledge, skills and dispositions was vital to being an informed and engaged citizen.

Now, as a faculty member in STEM education, I continue that work by encouraging and supporting master’s and doctoral students by leveraging their passion for the content area with the scope of research and scholarship. For me, my teaching, learning and mentoring experiences create a recursive relationship; with every graduate student I advise, I become a better and stronger teacher, learner and mentor.    

What I Enjoyed Most About the College of Education:

In thinking about my experiences at NC State, I had great courses in STEM education content and research methodologies, as well as education policy and graduate-level life science courses. The knowledge and skills I garnered from those courses and the faculty members that taught them have been invaluable to me as a faculty member that designs and teaches courses in graduate-level education courses. 

The best experience I had that has prepared me to become a tenured faculty member at an R1 university was my graduate research assistantship with [Alumni Distinguished Graduate Professor] Gail Jones at the Friday Institute for Educational Innovation. [Editor’s note: Jones is also a senior faculty fellow at the Friday Institute, which is part of the College of Education.] Not only was I able to apprentice with a top scholar in the field of science education using technology, but I was also able to expand my skills and networks in STEM education research. I was thoroughly supported by Dr. Jones as well as the Friday Institute to have the materials and resources I needed to pursue novel research questions in the field.

What Others Should Know About the College of Education:

The research opportunities for graduate students in STEM education at NC State are incredibly enriching and immensely beneficial for one’s future as a collaborative and independent scholar. The amount of attention and care that faculty paid to me as a graduate student to inculcate into the professoriate is an impressive model that I strive for now as a faculty member and mentor.

The Last Thing That Inspired Me:

I have been virtually attending the recent discussions and discourse occurring at the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine on Disrupting Ableism and Advancing STEM: A National Leadership Summit. As a K-12 researcher experiencing, studying and advocating against inequities in access to a high-quality P-20 STEM education and STEM futures, this topic is very important and meaningful to me both professionally and personally. Engaging in courageous conversations about ableism and how ableism manifests within STEM education ecosystems are vital first steps towards devising and implementing new ideas for a more inclusive education system and society.