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Q&A: White House, AIU recognize Washington Elementary teacher's tech efforts

Patrick Varine
| Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013, 9:01 p.m.
Above, astronaut and Emsworth native Mike Fincke, who participated in a Skype session with Washington Elementary students this week.
Photo courtesy of NASA
Above, astronaut and Emsworth native Mike Fincke, who participated in a Skype session with Washington Elementary students this week.

Students in Lisa Harajda's third-grade Washington Elementary class had a chance this week to Skype with a space-man.

Harajda, a district teacher for the past two decades, was recognized by the Allegheny Intermediate Unit as one of its “Champions of Change,” a program promoted by the White House, thanks to her efforts to integrate technology into her classroom, including the Skype session she arranged on Tuesday with astronaut and Emsworth native Michael Fincke.

Kindergarten teacher Amy Yohe was also among the award winners.

Washington Principal Tom Iaquinta, who nominated Harajda for the award, said it shows her dedication to her students.

“She went above and beyond to organize all this, and we commend her for that,” Iaquinta said.

Harajda spoke with the Progress recently about receiving the award and the ways she uses technology with her students:

Q: Is the astronaut Skype session part of an ongoing lesson plan, or more of a fun, educational activity outside of your normal classroom activity?

A: At the beginning of the school year, our social studies and reading class had us studying space and Ellen Ochoa, who is a former astronaut. One of my students commented one day that he would love to meet an astronaut so I started looking into it with the help of my co-teacher, Amanda Schmidt. So I guess you can call it the final culminating activity to end the study of space and astronauts.

Q: Outside of this experience, what other ways are you integrating technology into your classroom?

A: We Google a lot of information when we are curious about a topic. I use the Elmo (microscope adapter lens) to display a lot of items on the large screen for all to see. For example, we had a live beehive in a clear plastic bag. I put it under the elmo (a lens attachment for a microscope) for the whole day and we watched larvae hatch inside the hive on the big screen. The kids loved it! We play “First in Math,” a website that allows students to practice their math facts. In order to review for tests, we play online group games. For example, we play “Jeopardy!” all the time. The students love hearing the music and having the real screen in our room!

Q: It's often said that technology has “made the world a smaller place,” but in terms of education, it seems as though it has made the classroom a much bigger place. Is that an accurate way to sort of describe the role technology plays in education?

A: Absolutely! Some students can't make connections to certain things in life because they have never been to a place or know what a certain animal looks like. Technology brings that right into our classroom! The astronaut, Mr. Fincke, for example... he is all the way in Houston, and it would be too costly for us to bring him here. So a Skyping session is the next best thing!

Q: What are other ways you might be able to integrate Skype into your existing classroom curriculum?

A: We could have pen pals in other school buildings or other countries and then Skype with them. This would be neat to see the faces that we communicate with through letters or e-mails.

Patrick Varine is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7845 or

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