Two New Education Faculty Members Join Thomas College

Published: Monday, April 4, 2016

Meet Kate Cook Whitt:

When Kate Cook Whitt was studying for her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College in Ohio, she had a double-major: one in Neuroscience and the other in Music History/Theory. A couple of more degrees and teaching jobs later, she is now able to combine the two.

“When I started college I wanted to be a music teacher, but after taking some education courses I realized I was really fascinated by the brain and how people learn, which then developed an interest in the sciences,” she said. “So it kind of transitioned to wanting to be a music teacher to wanting to focus on the sciences – and now I am finally able to bring those two things back together.”

Cook Whitt will start teaching in the fall at Thomas College as an Assistant Professor of Education with a focus on STEAM education. Most recently, she was a high school science teacher at Dayton Regional STEM School in Ohio.

Cook Whitt explains that STEAM education is not just integrating science and arts, but it is a way of approaching problems and a way of thinking.

“It’s not any one particular content area; it’s that we are solving problems using all of the different content areas – and we are engaging in different ways with the problem,” said Cook Whitt.

Cook Whitt is excited to work with pre-service teachers, or education majors, at Thomas College to help them understand how to integrate these different content areas to make learning more meaningful, authentic, and engaging for their students.

“For example, when I sit down to plan a STEAM unit for a biology class – it’s thinking what goes into that unit to integrate humanities and integrate different sciences,” she said. “My job at Thomas will be to help teachers become educators who can weave together different content areas in order to support students as they solve problems and as they think critically.”

Cook Whitt’s job is part of Thomas College’s new Center for Innovation in Education, which is re-envisioning teacher education that supports digital learning, STEAM, and proficiency-based learning in an adaptive environment that reflects a contemporary instructional approach.

In the fall of 2015, Thomas College finished construction of the Center for Innovation in Education, a state-of-the-art classroom and co-working space designed to give students the ideal environment to learn and practice the skills required of tomorrow’s educators. Backed by an investment from the Lunder Foundation, the Center for Innovation in Education will add programs, technology, and training methods with the specific goal of preparing teachers for technology-rich approaches.

Thomas College is the only college in Maine to offer a STEAM-based model education.

Cook Whitt is very excited to work at Thomas College this fall and to be a part of The Center for Innovation in Education.

“What Thomas is doing is really incredible,” said Cook Whitt. “The goals and the mission of the Center for Innovation in Education is exactly in line with what I want to be doing and my thoughts about what education should look like and be like.

“The Center is something that the students in Maine and the schools in Maine really need. And I think it is coming at the right time and in the right place — and it has the potential to impact learning for a lot of different students.”

Meet Katie Rybakova:

Katie Rybakova is excited for snow when she starts her new job at Thomas College after moving from South Florida.

Born in Moscow, Russia, Rybakova moved to New York as a child. At age 14, she moved to South Florida and then attended college in 2007 at Florida State. She has been there ever since.

Now, after obtaining her PhD, she is excited to move to Maine to teach education majors at Thomas College.

“Thomas is a very student-centered university and a smaller school where I can focus on teaching, mentorship, and really give all of my effort and time into working with pre-service teachers and with in-service teachers around the area,” said Rybakova.

Rybakova will be Assistant Professor of Education with a concentration in proficiency-based learning. Her position will also be a part of The Center for Innovation in Education.

By 2018, all Maine high schools must deliver a proficiency-based diploma. As a member of the Maine Cohort for Customized Learning, Thomas College is taking advanced measures to prepare its students for this new model of learning, which includes investing in tools and faculty to position future teachers for success.

“The goal of the proficiency-based model is equality in degree,” said Rybakova. “We want kids to graduate high school with a high school degree that means the same thing, whether you’re in one county or another county, whether you are in a rural school or an urban school, whether you are in one state or another state.”

Rybakova said this model includes learning expectations that are measurable and clearly communicated that are focused on standards, particularly common core state standards. She said there is an emphasis on the process, differentiated instruction, and student choice.

She gave the example of assigning a portfolio assessment rather than a multiple choice test.

“This recognizes and focuses on growth and allows learners where they fall in whether they are proficient or not in a certain task,” said Rybakova. “It also gives a lot of emphasis for teachers to focus on the student and meet them where they are as learners and being able to encourage them to progress to proficiency, which is ultimately success in the standards they are given.”

When Rybakova became a student at Florida State University, she didn’t know what she wanted to study. She started as a nursing major, but after taking some English classes she changed her mind.

“Those English classes really drew me to how much I loved writing and reading. And I think I put the two together that I love to be a facilitator, a leader, someone who likes to encourage people – and that’s what really drew me to education,” she said.

Rybakova hopes to bring a lot of experience and diversity to Thomas College.

“I think today’s teacher needs to be extremely well-rounded: multi-disciplinary, knowledge of proficiency-based learning, 21st century literate – and I’m hoping with my unique aspects, I can add to a team of faculty that will provide more rigor and level of rigor to Thomas’s education program. Also to provide a hands-on, practical, and authentic education – all of which make learning both engaging and relevant, which I think are two really important terms when it comes to education at any level.”

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