Where passion meets calling
Dr. Rona Robinson-Hill was in 10th grade when she took her first true science class. It was then that her adoration for the subject began, specifically for biology and chemistry. “I’ve always been interested in the living,” said Robinson-Hill. “My first biology teacher Mr. Winkler, a white male, was excellent.” She didn’t know then that she would become an educator herself, an endeavor she sees as not only a career, but her life’s calling. And, since then, she’s made it her mission train the next generation of science educators, especially those from diverse backgrounds, to instill a love for science and all its possibilities in students much like she once was.
Dr. Robinson-Hill, Assistant Professor of Biology, started at Ball State in the fall of 2014. During her time here, she’s poured her energy and focus into the Training Future Scientists Program, a grant-funded program she founded on campus in 2017. Through TFS, she supervises the practicums of students grades 10-16, pre-service teachers, in local Muncie schools. Her SCI 397 students participate in experiential learning by providing “authentic science instruction to underrepresented students” in grades K-5. Robinson-Hill also hosts professional development opportunities for Muncie teachers to “enhance their ability to teach science in elementary and secondary classrooms and foster positive relationships with new teachers and veteran teachers.”
In January 2022, as a testament to Dr. Robinson-Hill’s passion and success, she received the Innovative College Science Teaching Award from the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers. She was nominated by Ball State colleagues Drs. Ruby Cain and John McKillip, both close friends and colleagues of Dr. Robinson-Hill, who are inspired by her work in and out of the classroom.
“While many may talk about diversity and the necessary role that diversity plays in academic progress, Rona acts from personal experience and heartfelt dedication to what diversity truly exemplifies in our workplace and community,” said Dr. McKillip. “Her actions speak much more richly than words. In this way, Rona’s influence is palpable and inspiring.”
For Robinson-Hill, receiving this recognition felt like the cherry on top of the fulfillment she feels every day.
Transition to teaching
A St. Louis, Missouri native, Dr. Robinson-Hill earned all three of her degrees in her home state, attending The University of Missouri – Kansas, Maryville University, and The University of Missouri – St. Louis. After briefly working in clinical chemistry, she soon discovered that she was not in the right place. When she switched to a university research lab, she fell in love with her work. 12 years in, she felt strongly compelled to transition to teaching, a calling she says God placed on her life.
“Science is my passion. Teaching is my calling,” said Robinson-Hill.
“The university I worked at offered free tuition. I had two small children at the time and decided to start grad school,” said Robinson-Hill. In three years, she earned her teaching certification and became an 8th grade science teacher. For her, passion meets calling in the classroom.
“When I first got to that school, we went on a field trip at least once every two weeks,” she said. “I’ve always been an innovative teacher. I always try to expose my students to so much.” She stayed for 17 years. Then, upon discovering Washington University’s teacher-researcher program, she decided pursue her Ph.D. Transitioning into higher education felt like the natural next step.
For many years, Dr. Robinson-Hill has been recognized as an award-winning teacher, previously named Outstanding Secondary Science Teacher by Pfizer and The St. Louis Academy of Science, the St. Louis American Salute to Excellence Award for Excellence in Education by the City of St. Louis, and twice-awarded the Dr. Robert O. Foster Faculty/Professional Staff Award by the Ball State Multicultural Center. For her successful efforts with the Teaching Future Scientists Program, she was also earned the Ball State University Presidential Immersive Learning Award in 2018. Her students have always felt like “her kids,” so much so that she calls herself the “proud mother of one son and one daughter, a host of Godchildren, students and mentees.”
For her students, the feeling is mutual.
Former student Jackie Sutton says that after graduating five years ago, Robinson-Hill still “checks in” with her, continuing to support her research and teaching practice. Sutton, now working as an educational researcher and preschool teacher, said “Dr. Robinson-Hill is always available to her previous students to help brainstorm ideas for strengthening a lesson, encouragement, and professional advice.”
“Dr. Robinson-Hill’ s passion for teaching pre-service teachers and reaching a variety of populations through her program is truly what makes her a phenomenal educator and role model in the teaching profession,” said Sutton. “She is living her dream daily by training pre-service educators and her commitment to strengthening the teaching of science. It’s so inspiring.”
Another former student, Jackson Miner, is not surprised to hear about Dr. Robinson-Hill receiving the Innovative College Science Teaching Award, as he feels there is no one more deserving. Miner, now an 8th grade science teacher, says that he applies the principles he learned from Robinson-Hill in his classroom today.
“Her teaching practices in even the one class I took with her have inspired me to continue to have the tough conversations about bias and inequalities in science with my students, and hopefully inspire them to push for change, like she inspired me,” said Miner.
“She truly puts her heart and soul into each one of her students and continues to care and connect with them in all aspects of life. She encourages them to push outside their own boundaries and trust that they are and can be exceptional educators.” – Jackson Miner, former student and 8th Grade Science Teacher
With her students Ball State, Dr. Robinson-Hill embraces a hands-on mentality: “You’ve got to get down in the dirt with them.” She loves to work alongside her students, immersing them in experiential learning and being there with them every step of the process.
But her care and guidance extends far beyond the classroom. She shows genuine care and concern for her students in every aspect of their lives, while they’re at Ball State and long after they graduate.
Dr. Ruby Cain, Associate Professor of Practice and Advisor of Adult and Community Education, helped nominate Dr. Robinson-Hill for this award. She calls Robinson-Hill a colleague and friend, meeting her shortly after she arrived Ball State and connecting with her “over our love of teaching, continuous learning, and community engagement.” Now, they serve together as officers for Ball State’s Black Faculty and Staff Association.
“Her passion for science education and ensuring the success of each and every one of her college students is evidenced, every single day, in the time, skill, and compassion she exudes when working with her students, planning her study activities, and engaging her students in the community to work with elementary school students at two after-school programs,” said Cain. Her eyes light up when she shares how hard her college students work to develop and execute their teaching plans.”
Dr. John McKillip, another close friend and colleague of Dr. Robinson-Hill and her other nominator, says she has changed the way he thinks about higher education.
“Because of Rona’s influence, I think about teaching and research completely differently than I did before she came. For example, when I recruit students into my lab for M.S. or Ph.D. research projects, or when I walk into a new semester of classroom teaching, I immediately want to recognize and advocate for the underrepresented students whom I see,” said McKillip.
“Female scientists, students of color, international students, an other underrepresented groups are tomorrow’s future leaders, and each has a deep an interesting story to share. Rona has taught me how to listen to these individuals, and to provide opportunities for each to emerge into scientists and scholars during their time at Ball State,” added McKillip.
Dr. Robinson-Hill has made a profound impact on many members of the Ball State community, and continues to do so through her work every day. In the words of Dr. Ruby Cain, her “passion of teaching excellence, collaboration, vision of equity and spirit of inclusion” is inspiring. The College of Sciences and Humanities reveres her remarkable dedication to teaching science, equity for minority students in STEM, the Muncie community, and the lives and successes of her students.