Doug Bergman, Louis Zilli, Donna Thomas and Margaret Noble with their project, "When Fish Fly."

Donna Thomas loved teaching high school students about computer science and helping them stretch their minds in innovative ways.

She says that passion fueled the four years she taught at Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring. And it’s what led her to be part of a winning team of educators at the 2011 Global Innovator Educator Awards sponsored by Microsoft.

Thomas and her four team members, who won the collaboration award, were honored at a ceremony Nov. 10 at the 7th annual Microsoft Partners in Learning Global Forum in Washington, D.C.

Their project, “When Fish Fly,” is a student-developed Xbox Kinect game that replicates the sights, sounds, history and “sense of place” of the famous fish market at the historic Pike Place Market in Seattle, according to Microsoft.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and more than 700 teachers, school leaders and education leaders, plus government officials from more than 70 countries, attended the global forum.

Thomas’ team of educators from across the country developed the game project after meeting during the 2011 Microsoft U.S. Innovative Education Forum in July in Redmond, Wash.

The educators, who had submitted their own projects, were among 111 finalists chosen to showcase the creative ways they are using technology in the classroom, according to Microsoft officials. The finalists were broken into teams and charged with developing new projects involving teaching strategies.

The project by Thomas and her team was among 18 chosen as winners from more than 115 submitted worldwide for the global forum.

The number of educators involved on the winning teams had been winnowed down from more than 200,000 applicants who had competed in the national and regional events throughout the year.

What a coup for Sherwood High and Montgomery County Public Schools. Except that Thomas no longer is employed by MCPS.

In September, just two weeks into the school year, Thomas left teaching. She received a job offer from a Germantown company at a salary much higher than the $57,000 a year she was earning as a teacher. Faced with another year without a pay raise, and shelling out more of her paycheck for benefits, Thomas decided it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

“The reasons for me leaving were purely compensation,” she said. “I love the kids. I miss it. It was really hard” to leave.

The new job not only lacks the stress of teaching, but pays a salary more commensurate with Thomas’ 26 years of experience in the computer science industry and eight years as an adjunct college professor. Her new title is director of quality assurance for service delivery at Affiliated Computer Services, a division of Xerox.

“When you teach, you have all these lives that you’re responsible for. You’re not just teaching, you’re role modeling,” Thomas said. “You’re not a mom to those kids, but you’re something a bit more than a teacher.”

Even though she’s left Sherwood, Thomas said she’s still in touch with her students and hopes to use her position as a winner of a Global Forum Educator Award to promote the teaching of technology skills in schools. She talked with Education Secretary Duncan about her ideas.    

“I’m not in the classroom, but what I have is a voice,” said Thomas, who’s pursuing a doctorate in computer science. “How do we turn our classrooms into 20th century technology developers? The school system is not listening to what industry wants.”

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com