PhD Math & Science Education student named Presidential Award finalist for science teaching

Nina Hike, who is also a chemistry teacher at CPS, is a finalist for this year’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching

When Nina Hike was a young child living in the Altgeld Gardens public housing projects on the far South Side, she would walk across the street to the Beaubien Woods and bring back insects and plants to learn about.

While some parents would have discouraged her curiosity, her mother Gloria J. Goss and her father Theo Hike Sr. encouraged her interest in science. Her love of science led to her earning a bachelor’s in biology with a minor in chemistry from the University of Illinois Chicago, a master’s in secondary education from DePaul University and a return to UIC where she is currently working on her doctorate focusing on equity in science education.

For over 25 years, the mother of three has worked as a science teacher at Chicago Public Schools and recently was named one of three finalists from Illinois for this year’s Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, or PAEMST, the nation’s highest honor for STEM teachers. The awards are administered by the National Science Foundation on behalf of The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“My mom got me interested in science by fostering my natural curiosity, she always encouraged our curiosity and critical thinking,” said Hike. “My father was the source for paying for all my failed science experiments, he’s definitely been my motivator and cheerleader.”

Hike's Journey at UIC

Nina Hike

Hike’s time at UIC began when she was a preschooler on campus as her mother took courses. Later after graduating from CPS schools she followed in her mother’s footsteps and attended UIC. As an undergrad, she worked for the African American Cultural Center, earned the UIC’s leadership award, was an Alliance for Minority Participation scholar, and was inducted into the Beta, Beta, Beta National Biological Honor Society. She credits her professors, in particular, Donald Wink from the UIC Chemistry department for serving as a mentor.

“Dr. Wink is probably the most instrumental person there for me being a teacher and affirming my science identity,” said Hike.

At UIC she acted as a chemistry peer mentor and after graduating decided to pursue a teaching career. During the years she has taught at Orr, Marie Curie, and currently is at Westinghouse high schools. As she focused on her teaching, she organized and ran science fairs for students and other science projects.

She enlisted the help of Wink from UIC who would go to her classes and assist her and students with science fairs and other presentations.

“He just kept supporting me even with my own students,” said Hike.

After earning her master’s she returned to UIC where she began working on her PhD in Math & Science Education in the College of Education. She credits UIC’s Maria Varelas, chair and professor of science education; and Danny Morales-Doyle, assistant professor of science education; with helping bring a critical, social justice lens to her science teaching.

With their tutelage, she began to dig deeper to understand her role as a Black female scientist to identify and “dismantle” systemic racism within science. Her aim is to empower students to use science to address challenges facing the communities in which they live.

She developed a unit called “Environmental Racism and Elements” which she used in her application for the award. She focused on the General Iron controversy which called for a metal shredding plant to be moved from Lincoln Park to a majority Latino neighborhood. She also focused on the environmental and chemistry-related issues from the demolition of a smokestack that caused thick plumes of dirt and other particles to spread throughout Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood in the midst of the pandemic.

“I told my students you need to understand that this is a systemic issue, this is systemic racism because they have been putting those plants there for years,” she said. “They did that because they felt they could do that in an area where minorities live so this is an issue. This is intentionally being done so that’s why we call it environmental racism.”

In her dissertation, she focuses on microaggressions in science and how students and teachers of color navigate science. Over the past year, with the death of George Floyd and other instances of systemic racism, she has lead discussions with her students and pointed to instances such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as the need for science literacy. She pointed to the hesitancy among many African Americans to the Covid-19 vaccine as the byproduct of systemic racism within the science community.

Hike has also co-sponsored the Black Student Unions at Westinghouse and Marie Curie High Schools as a way to create space for students, faculty, staff and the administration to discuss Black history, culture and identity.

She also keeps in contact with her former students through social media and has brought them to her classes to speak with younger students who can see examples of Black and Latinx engineers, scientists and other professionals and hear their stories. This is necessary because often she is the only person of color in many science- and STEM-related events. She said receiving the honor has been the culmination of her many years as a teacher.

“When I watched the George Floyd video last year it made me understand that no matter how smart my students are they are still going to be seen as Black, Latinx, or Asian and they are going to experience life differently than white students,” said Hike. “They need to understand that it’s good to be smart in science but you need to be able to interrogate science and to be able to have the foundational knowledge to challenge science.”