A newsmaker you should know: West Allegheny teacher honored for use of classroom technology
July 6, 2012 4:00 AM
By Andrea Iglar
When Pam Volakis was considering an alternative to her computer programming job in the steel industry 18 years ago, someone suggested she look into teaching because the schools were starting to get computers.
"I said, 'You're kidding me,' " Mrs. Volakis recalled. "PCs ... were just coming out when I came into education."
As a newly hired computer teacher at West Allegheny High School, Mrs. Volakis had to type 40 commands just to connect to the school server from her home dial-up system.
"Now, they just click and they're there," she said.
An enthusiastic lifelong learner, Mrs. Volakis has kept up with technology as devices have become smaller, faster and more widespread, and she has created exciting ways to teach students how to employ technology so that it's useful to them no matter what career interests them.
HOMETOWN: Findlay; originally from Warren, Ohio
EDUCATION: Associate degree in computer science, Kent State University; bachelor's degree in computer science with an accounting minor, Youngstown State University; teaching certification, Robert Morris University
FAMILY: Husband of 28 years, Nick; daughters, Katherine, 26, of Philadelphia, and Lexie, 23, of Columbus, Ohio
HOBBIES: Exercising and shopping
Mrs. Volakis is among 102 teachers from 25 states who will travel July 31 to Redmond, Wash., to be honored for innovative use of classroom technology as part of the Microsoft Partners in Learning 2012 U.S. Forum.
The program connects and celebrates educators who engage students and advance learning through technology.
Microsoft Corp. chose Mrs. Volakis based on a project in which her students designed educational video games for the Microsoft Xbox 360. The activity was part of her gaming class, which was started last year to spark interest in her programming courses.
Each student collaborated with a teacher to develop an interactive game for pupils in either the life skills program or the preschool program.
One student invented a game called Math Bingo to teach high-schoolers with special needs how to count money. Each correct answer earns a ding sound and a virtual chip on a bingo card space. A complete row, column or diagonal line of correct answers leads to a bingo, followed by the sound of applause.
Another student created a memory game to teach 3- and 4-year-olds about numbers. Players click on face-down cards to reveal and match numerals and the number of dots on dice. Successes are marked by dings and clapping.
The gaming project was valuable beyond computer programming skills, Mrs. Volakis said. Her students exercised critical thinking and problem solving, worked in practical settings and developed products for clients -- all skills that can be generalized to other areas of life and work, she said.
Mrs. Volakis believes Microsoft was drawn to her project because it involved students writing computer programs to benefit other students.
"That was the key there, that they were doing something for students who were not like them," she said. "It's a cool way to have to make kids think."
During the two-day stay in the Seattle area, Mrs. Volakis will tour the Microsoft campus, attend professional development activities and do some sightseeing. She looks forward to getting a glimpse of future technology trends and sharing ideas with colleagues.
"It kind of rejuvenates you and gets you excited," she said.
Honorees also will exhibit their projects and compete for a spot at the Microsoft Global Forum in November in Athens, Greece.
At West Allegheny High School, Mrs. Volakis teaches business and computer technology and generally maintains a full schedule of classes for grades nine to 12, including computer programming for the Xbox, programming with the Java and Visual Basic languages, and a mandatory freshman course in technology and study skills.
Mrs. Volakis tells students that even if they don't want to become a computer programmer, "You'll be amazed at how much it will help you later on."
"You can't do anything anymore without computers," Mrs. Volakis said. "Students having an idea of what goes behind that simple click is knowledge that can really help them in whatever career path they choose."
Mrs. Volakis is adviser to the Future Business Leaders of America student group and the high school technology facilitator -- meaning she's the go-to person for computer problems. She also coordinates the online grading system and trains co-workers on new software.
She has partnered with the University of Pittsburgh so her students can earn college credits for computer programming, and she has worked with Carnegie Mellon University on a robotics activity that resulted in a donation of small programmable robots to the high school.
Next school year, she hopes to use a Kinect wireless motion detection system won through Microsoft to allow students to operate their video games without holding a controller.
"It's fun [to be a computer teacher] because you never go stale. You're always learning," Mrs. Volakis said. "I learn things from the kids constantly as they're learning from me."