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Schoolhouse to White House

If science wasn’t your favorite subject in school, then you never had a teacher like Zebetta King. Ten minutes into our conversation about science education I was ready to consider a second career as an epidemiologist.

King, a 2005 Kenan Fellow who’s pursuing a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction at NC State, was honored at the White House last week as one of the top math and science teachers in the nation. She recently took a position developing science tools and curricula in the Wake County Public Schools after nearly two decades in the classroom.

Along with a new line for her résumé, the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching gave King a few networking opportunities. During her trip to Washington she met President Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, and posed for photos with education officials from the National Science Foundation and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Great Teacher, Great Learner

The secret of her success? Easy, says King. The best teachers are lifelong learners.

Zebetta King at the Wake County Public Schools.
Zebetta King inspires students and teachers to love science.

“I’m continuing to learn, and not just from books and courses,” she says. “I also learn from my students. One of the things I’ve always tried to do is learn who my students are and what they bring to the classroom.”

This focus on students translates into more effective teaching, enabling King to tailor lessons to students’ interests and abilities. Above all, it’s very hands-on.

“They walk in and you engage them. If you get them excited about learning, they will take the journey with you to the next level.”


To teach a lesson on viruses, for example, King surreptitiously covered her hands with Glo Germ Powder, an invisible substance that shows up—rather dramatically—under a hand-held ultraviolet light.

Like a virus, the powder residue spread slowly around the room, carried by items like pencils, papers and notebooks shared between students.

After an hour, King brought out the UV light and turned it on.

“If I had a virus, everybody in this room would be contaminated,” she told the fifth-graders.

Sparking Curiosity

Their curiosity sparked, the students designed an epidemiology study to monitor hand-washing on campus. After developing a hypothesis, conducting tests across several age demographics, tallying data and graphing their results, the students put their new-found knowledge into action.

They created a public health campaign: a puppet show to educate younger children about the importance of soap and hot water.

“You can move kids huge distances with that type of thing,” King says. “But you don’t go in and have them memorize facts and take a test. You help them build a deeper understanding of science and the process of science. And a love for science.”

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