Award-winning ‘Mathster’ Makes Math Matter

In an age where children are used to watching TV and movies and playing video games, math teacher Tom Vakkas ’98 subtracts the textbooks and worksheets and adds in videos and toys.

Tom, a fourth-grade math teacher at Parker Elementary School in Cortland, has used conventional, paper-based methods during his 13-year career. “Kids get it, but not all kids,” he said. Now, starring as “Mathster Vakkas” in his homemade videos, he tries to get students to solve problems using real-life situations.

“I’ll do something like, ‘Hey kids, it’s Mathster Vakkas. I’m here trying to buy a Gatorade and a granola bar. The Gatorade is $2.30 and the granola bar is 85 cents. How much am I going to spend in total and if I pay with $5 how much change am I going to get back?’” said Tom. “[It’s] just real life stuff, instead of textbook stuff.”

His creative approach earned Tom a second-place award in the PBS Teacher Innovation Award contest in 2011 for using PBS resources and innovative ideas that emphasize 21st century learning skills. Only 40 teachers nationwide were honored. He credits his success to his outgoing personality, technology, his own children and his toys.

Tom’s videos use snow forts, pets, games and sports to teach math. He also creates “video stories” that integrate questions into a presentation incorporating English, math and patterns.

“At the spots where I ask questions, you’ll hear kids answering out loud,” Vakkas said of his video stories. “It’s so cool.”

Tom’s time at Oswego played a role in his current career. “Oswego was where my heart was, it changed my life,” he said. “It woke me up and gave me a good education.”

He credits Dr. Ronald Brown, emeritus professor of physics, for opening his eyes to using toys and entertainment to teach.

Tom is continuing on with Mathster Vakkas Productions with new tutorials and video clips on many topics and math subjects at mathstervakkas.com.

Erin Marulli ’13

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