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Information Systems Professor Named Outstanding Faculty at Waubonsee
The best teachers are those who never stop learning themselves — about their discipline, about the art of teaching, about their students. Given that her discipline is in a constant state of change and innovation, Waubonsee Community College Assistant Professor of Information Systems Maya Tolappa, of Naperville, has no choice but to embrace the role of student as well as teacher. Because of the exemplary way in which she blends teaching and learning, Tolappa has been named the college’s Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year for 2012.
Tolappa became accustomed to the pace of the information technology (IT) industry while working at an IT company in India. After moving to the U.S., she spent five years as a systems engineer at IBM. But once she was expecting her second child, she wanted a career that would allow her a bit more flexibility.
With her master’s degree in management information systems from Northern Illinois University in hand, Tolappa sought out a teaching job.
“It was the beginning of the dot-com era, and so it was very difficult to hire an IT professional to teach,” Tolappa said.
That’s why when a pregnant Tolappa interviewed with Waubonsee in the fall of 1993, the college agreed to hold the position for her until that spring after she had the baby.
She soon found that while teaching was a bit more flexible a profession, it was certainly no less work.
“You have the same amount of work, you’re just able to take it home — for good or bad,” Tolappa said.
And work she has, helping to develop at least 15 new courses over the past 18 years. She currently teaches C++ Programming, Introduction to Java, Advanced Java, Game Development and PHP Programming.
“I’m not teaching any of the same courses as when I started, and I don’t know that I’ve ever used the same book two years in a row,” Tolappa said.
In fact, a lot of the programming languages and software taught at Waubonsee are so new that there are no textbooks available. Tolappa said she and her colleagues often have to teach from technical manuals, creating assignments and tests on their own.
Tolappa also has to work out a coding project that she’ll demonstrate in class. The idea is for students to figure it out together and examine the various ways in which the coding can be successful. This tends to keep students interested.
“It’s never a canned class,” Tolappa said. “It always goes differently.”
Tolappa jokes about feeling different in her game development course, which she has taught for five years.
“I’m often the only female and the only person over the age of 25 in that course,” she said.
While not a “gamer” herself, Tolappa sees the course as an accessible way for students to explore computer programming. According to Tolappa, students tend to be more interested in writing code to make a game character move or jump than they do to make a payroll system run.
But no matter the ultimate goal of the programming, it has to work, and that’s why there is no partial credit in Tolappa’s courses.
“Software is never done,” Tolappa explains. “If it does not work correctly at first, that’s ok, but students must be willing to rework it multiple times. It eventually needs to be right and run perfectly to get credit.”
Tolappa is there to help students achieve the perfection, through her knowledge, empathy and motivational skills.
“Maya has a proven track record of mentoring and motivating students so that they move into rewarding careers or pursue further studies,” said Dean for Business and Information Systems Suzette Murray. “Her enthusiasm for teaching certainly permeates her classrooms every day.”
“I realize that for many of these students, computer programming is new and out of their comfort zone,” Tolappa said. “I recognize how hard that is, and I encourage them to stick with it. I always say that if you learn something you didn’t know before class, you’ve made progress. I point out to students where they were in week two of the semester and where they are at the end of it and just how far they’ve come.”
In addition to helping individual students and the information systems discipline advance, Tolappa has also helped Waubonsee’s college community in larger ways. Not only did she help create tests for the computer information systems component of the college’s annual Business Competiton Day, she also built the website and online registration system for the event. She has served as a judge for the state Business Professionals Association competition for high school students.
From 2007 to 2009, Tolappa served as Waubonsee’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) faculty liaison. “That opportunity helped me meet so many new people and really see all the work that goes on in the background that allows faculty to be successful.”