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CCU Atheneum: Austin Hitt works on Prince Lawn with students in the MAT program.
Austin Hitt works on Prince Lawn with students in the MAT program.

Get to know Austin Hitt: practicing mindfulness across Teal nation

by Connor Uptegrove
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Associate professor of graduate and specialty studies Austin Hitt, holding the handle of a rolling file chest in one hand and a life-size cardboard cutout of Bill Nye the Science Guy with the other, squeaked across the tile floor of CCU’s Prince Building on a rainy Monday in February.

He pulled the file chest to the corner of his office and hung up his drenched coat beside a collection of boxes and tubs full of scientific models, magnets and experiment tools that would make Bill Nye himself blush.

Among this arsenal of lesson enhancers for his courses at CCU, Hitt has three phrases on a whiteboard in red dry erase marker - inclusivity, awareness and process in the classroom - that he refers to as the innovative principles of mindfulness.

Hitt defines mindfulness as an awareness of thought and the emotions that are inherently connected to thought. It seeks to turn abstract concepts into concrete examples.

“We use science mindfulness because the content we work with is so abstract,” said Hitt.

When Hitt teaches, he is aware of the preconceptions of students in regard to scientific topics and how those can interfere with learning. “Students come with intuitions about the world,” said Hitt. “But those intuitions aren’t always correct.” Then Hitt constructs a model as an analogy for the phenomenon.

For example, when Hitt teaches a lesson about conductors and insulators, he asks students to predict which surface will allow an ice cube to melt faster: a plastic base or a metal base. Most students predict the metal surface, which feels colder to the touch.

“Then we can ask, ‘this is what you previously believed, is that right?’” said Hitt. “We are able to build an understanding.”

The steps to building that understanding, detailed on his whiteboard, include the use of concrete models, guiding students to bridge the principles, and pairing those principles with the official terminology.

He uses a dry erase board as opposed to permanent ink to explain mindfulness because he recognizes that the process of learning is always changing and that it is crucial to be open to new perspectives.

Hitt has even found himself changing, especially in contrast to his own experiences as an undergraduate biology major.

“Both my mom and dad were teachers, so I was determined not to be one also,” explained Hitt.

After becoming a teaching assistant as part of his graduate degree at Auburn University, Hitt was shocked to learn that he liked teaching more than spending time in research labs. He thanks his parents for their example, but there was really one crucial contribution they made to his career as a professor.

“They didn’t say ‘I told you so,’” said Hitt.

Hitt remembers a professor who showed him the power of visual learning and mindfulness.

“If you can teach a class on algae and make it interesting, that probably means you’re a good teacher,” said Hitt.

After that experience, Hitt learned to always make each lesson meaningful because educators can be major influences on the shape of their students’ lives.

“Dr. Hitt uses mindfulness in the classroom to create experiential opportunities for learning,” said Edward Jadallah, dean of the Spadoni College of Education. “He emphasizes a constructivist learning process in which knowledge gained from field and clinical experiences serve as a frame of reference for understanding and interpreting curriculum, instruction and assessment practices.”

More than any other definition, Hitt describes the role of a teacher as a guide and a mentor.

Hitt is also aware that science can often be a tool for understanding the essential qualities that make each individual unique. Each day, he tries to break the stereotypes surrounding scientists.

“Science education reveals a lot about us as humans,” said Hitt. “For example, science is done by diverse individuals, and kids can see role models who reflect their experiences.”

Hitt believes that diversity in the scientific community is essential for progress and advancements.

“The field of primatology changed from a male-dominated perspective to a much more complex family network when women like Jane Goodall began their work,” said Hitt. “They showed a new perspective about the female power structure in troops of chimpanzees.”

There is research in scientific education finding that when the field is presented as open to many, more people are likely to try it, Hitt explains.

At its core, mindfulness aims to get the wheels turning in the heads of students because if the students are thinking, there’s a chance that they’re learning, according to Hitt.

“Our job is to help the student develop their understandings,” said Hitt. “It’s not us giving information, but it’s helping students construct their own thinking. We need to be aware of the emotions connected to that.”

Bill Nye the Science Guy would be proud.

 

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