Greek teacher who inspires students to reach for the stars honoured on Australia Day

“Why not do it if you feel you feel so strongly about your idea?” was most people’s response when science teacher Michael Panormitis Pakakis AM came back fired up by what he had seen on an education trip to a space camp in Alabama, USA. He wanted to do something similar in Australia.

“They were doing incredible science and engineering (at the Alabama space camp), it was an incredible way to teach children science. It was a shame not to have something similar in Victoria and Australia,” said Mr Pakakis who is the Director of the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC) at Strathmore Secondary College in Melbourne where is also the Assistant Principal.

On Australia Day, last week, he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to STEM (Sciences, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) through his work to set up and run the VSSEC.

At the time of the trip to the Alabama space camp, he was a science teacher at Strathmore College, where he had been a high school teacher. What had grabbed him about the experience was how inspired the students became when their STEM learning was linked to space travel.

“Space is a really good hook for STEM teaching and learning. It is not only about rockets. Every area of science and technology is connected to the space industry. There is not one part of our lives we cannot connect to space. It draws on every unit of STEM and is one of the reasons why our program has such a great engagement with students,” Mr Pakakis told Neos Kosmos.

“You have to engage students with this science early to get them hooked early.”

His principal and colleagues supported the idea to send a proposal to the state government in 2001 to set up what came to be known as the VSSEC. The state government awarded $6.4million to set up the centre –it would take up to $30 million to build a similar centre today.

The building for the centre, which caters for Years 5 to 12, took two years to set up. It took another two years to install the technological aids.

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Mr Pakakis was appointed science co-ordinator and worked with four teachers to prepare the curriculum and to run it as well prepare a programme for children in the state.

“Receiving the Australian Medal means recognition for what I have done and the amazing team of which I am part of,” he said.

More than 200,000 students have passed through the doors of the VSSEC since it opened its doors in 2006. The centre’s outreach programs have reached thousands of students across the state.

“The programs are available to every child in Victoria. We were the first to provide scenario-based science programme to immerse the students in their learning.”

The Mars programme is the VSSEC’s flagship with a one section of the building featuring a simulated surface of the red planet and another room is the Mission control room. The students are immersed into the roles of engineers, research scientists and astronauts.

Seven years ago, the VSSEC was invited to give a presentation at NASA’s headquarters in Washington. The centre was invited to join the International Space Education board whose members include seven space agencies such as NASA and the European Space Agency among others. This has served to bring leading -edge knowledge and methodologies back to Victoria.

VSSEC, in its turn, is serving as a guiding light to other educational institutions across the country and the globe. It has worked with the South Australian Education department to set a Mission to Mars programme at Hamilton Secondary College.

In 2019 Mr Pakakis began a successful collaboration with the Wallingford schools in Connecticut in the USA itself to set up a space education centre that will implement VSSEC’s education programmes.

Born in 1962 in Rhodes, Mr Pakakis, an only child, was two years old when his parents took him on the Patris to emigrate to Australia. Both his parents, Konstandinos and Eleni, worked hard to set themselves up in the new country.

“There was not much to do but watch TV programmes like Start Trek and read books – my first book was an encyclopedia, but I still love science fiction,” Mr Pakakis said. Issac Asimov is his favourite author although he also delves into the works of Noam Chomski.

“When the Americans landed on the moon – I remember seeing the landing from television at Fawkner Primary School – I told my parents: ‘I don’t care what it is but I am in science.”

He went to Strathmore Secondary College for high school. He earned his Bachelor of Science in Microbiology and Biochemistry at La Trobe University and went on to do his Diploma of Education at Monash University.

“I am a person who likes to help others. I tutored others as an undergraduate and I decided that education was what I enjoyed,” he said.

He is a recipient of the 2007 La Trobe University Dean’s Medal for outstanding service to science and engineering. His work in STEM education was recognized when he received the BHP/Billiton Science Teachers Award (certificate of achievement), a Hellenic Distinction Award (Education). In 2001 NASA awarded him an appreciation certificate for outstanding service and significant contributions to space education.

His family are natural born educators. His wife, Sue whose parents are descended from Limnos, is a speech pathologist in the education department, his youngest daughter is studying to be a teacher and his eldest is a lawyer.

“We are Greek speaking and all of us did Greek to Year 12. The language has helped as there a lot of scientific terms that I easily understood that others struggled with. It does not matter what science I read but it always connects with Greece.

“I am very proud of my Greek heritage, but I am also proud to be in Australia in a country where there is much opportunity if you are prepared to work hard.”

As to the way ahead for the centre, it is a case of reviewing the curriculum to ensure it stays relevant with the latest developments. One of these is in the, for now, rarefied field of Quantum Computing. Mr Pakakis says the field is set to grow over the next 30 years and the centre is working to develop a six-month programme for 16-year-old students “to engage them in this area of science that is for far ahead – it is a world first for the VSSEC.”