Q&A with Code.org educator honored as an Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year

Michelle Pierce, a K-8 computer science teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina, says the award will have a significant impact on her school and her students.

Each year, the Amazon Future Engineer Teacher of the Year Awards recognize 10 teachers who work to “help students in underserved and underrepresented communities pursue futures in computer science and robotics.”

Each of the ten teachers received a prize package valued at more than $30,000, which included $25,000 to expand computer science and/or robotics education at their respective schools. The teachers also received a $5,000 cash award to celebrate their outstanding work.

In 2021, seven Code.org teachers and/or facilitators were honored with this distinction! One of them was Michelle Pierce, 43, a computer science teacher at Mallard Creek STEM Academy in Charlotte, North Carolina. The school is a K-8 tuition-free, public charter school where 51% of students are Black or African American.

Michelle works with students in grades 6–8 on lessons in digital citizenship and coding. This year, she’ll also work with K-5 students using a digital citizenship curriculum that includes how to use technology appropriately, the definition of cyberbullying, and balancing technology usage.

We asked Michelle to describe receiving the AFE honor, why she loves computer science, her efforts to expand CS access to underrepresented students, and more:

Congratulations on being named a 2021 Future Engineer Teacher of the Year. What does that honor mean to you?

Since opening in 2016, Mallard Creek STEM Academy has worked hard to provide an equitable, engaging, and rigorous STEM/ Computer Science/ Robotics program to all K-8 students. As a charter school, we do not have access to the same resources that the larger surrounding districts have. This award will have a significant impact on our school and students by supporting the development of a competitive robotics team as well as affording students the experience of innovative robotic designs. This award will also allow for students to be exposed to professionals in the STEM and Robotics sector.

This school year we implemented a brand new Innovation Academy. This academy is designed to provide students who thrive in the fields of science, an opportunity to learn about and implement the engineering and design process, research skills, and have an opportunity to create real solutions to solve environmental issues in our school and local communities through STEM.

I was able to use a portion of my stipend to invest in my son’s passion for computer science/ robotics. He is currently in the 8th grade and is on the autism spectrum. He has an innate ability to understand and relate to computers and electronics in a way that blows my mind. I love being able to connect with him in this area. This award would allow me to pay for him to participate in enrichment camps and activities that he has not previously had access to.

You’ve said that your mission is to expose more students to computer science. Why is that so important to you?

I am passionate about teaching computer science because many students, particularly girls and students of color, are not exposed to the field. Our school data shows that 93% of the population are students of color and 38% of our students receive free and reduced lunch. Many of our students have limited access to technology. I love seeing students come alive when they learn how to code their first website or animation project.

My goal is to make computer science relatable and enjoyable. I try to impart my excitement and passion onto my students so that they will enjoy coming to class. Although not every student will grow up to work in the field of computer science, exposure is important so they are aware of their options. I tell my students that even if they never take another computer science class, they will learn important life skills such as teamwork, problem-solving, perseverance, and patience.

There’s a known lack of diversity in computer science across gender and racial and ethnic lines. What are you doing to inspire underrepresented students to explore CS?

I design my curriculum to be inclusive to students of all ability levels regardless of their previous experience in computer science. This will ensure that all students have the opportunity to be exposed to these STEM fields. In addition to our regular curriculum, I have worked specifically to expose students to the contributions of African-Americans and women in computer science.

For example, last year during Black History Month my 6th and 7th grade students researched and presented information on black computer scientists. My 7th and 8th graders watched and discussed the TED Talk by Joy Buolamwini on algorithmic bias. We also watched the documentary Coded Bias and had discussions about the importance of representation in the field of computer science as well as the relevance of this type of technology to their lives.

This year, I am facilitating the launch of a Girls Who Code club for girls in grades 5–8. I also co-sponsor an annual Hour of Code competition that encourages all 3rd through 8th grade students at the school to participate in coding activities. Last year, students collectively wrote over 1,000 lines of code. Top winners in each grade level were awarded with school-wide recognition, a pizza party, and prizes.

In addition, I mentor young girls of color at our school by helping them navigate relationships with their peers and teachers. I also challenge them to strive academically and encourage them to be exposed to academic experiences outside of their comfort zones.

I am an active member of the Computer Science Teachers Association on both the local and national level. As an African-American woman, I want to be able to add my voice to discussions related to K-12 computer science issues and advocate for underrepresented populations. Through this membership, I have been able to collaborate with other like-minded educators.

You were an elementary school teacher before stepping away to co-own your own catering company! What made you decide to return to teaching?

The primary reason I stopped teaching was to stay at home with my two children. While being a stay-at-home mom, I also helped support my husband’s dream of opening a barbecue food truck and catering company. At the time, I was looking to switch my son’s school to something closer to home. A friend encouraged me to go to Mallard Creek STEM Academy’s Open House which was opening for its first year. I thought it would be a great fit for my family. My daughter was starting kindergarten and my son was going into the third grade. Once they enrolled, I was more comfortable with the idea of returning to work. I started out by working as a substitute teacher for the school before transitioning into a full-time role. I am extremely passionate about working with kids. My goal is to be a positive influence in their lives. I really enjoy seeing them get excited about learning, especially when it is in a subject like computer science that they may not be interested in.

How did you get started teaching computer science?

Funny enough, I never planned to teach computer science. I was working as a substitute when the position first became available. Initially, I told my principal, Mrs. Smith, that I would fill the position as a long-term substitute. But quickly realized that this was a challenge that I was interested in taking on. I was inspired by my father, who holds an undergraduate degree in computer science. He worked in a number of positions over his 40-year career in the field. Once I accepted the position, I committed myself to pursuing the necessary training in order to excel in the position. I am the type of person that rises to the occasion when presented with a challenge.

What do you like about the Code.org lessons you use in your classroom? What do your students like about them?

What I like most about the Code.org lessons is that I am able to customize a curriculum for each of the grade levels I teach. For example, last year my 6th graders did the Express Course. They loved the Express Course because it was almost like playing a video game. The Minecraft lessons were definitely some of their favorites. My 7th graders did the Animation & Games unit. They really enjoyed creating personalized projects throughout the course. My 8th graders learned how to code their own websites using HTML. I loved seeing how proud they were at the end of the year when their websites were finalized. The lessons that I used worked well for both the in-person and online classes, as we were constantly fluctuating between the two due to COVID-19.

In addition to teaching coding, you also teach your students about digital citizenship and how to balance technology usage. Why do you think that’s important?

Although today’s youth are constantly connected, many have received little to no guidance about how to interact responsibly online. I help navigate topics such as digital drama, digital footprints, and sexting, on an age-appropriate level. This year, in addition to working with my middle-school students, I am also working with all of our elementary classes to teach them about how to be responsible digital citizens. At the end of each class, I encourage the students to continue the conversations at home with their families.

— Samantha Urban Tarrant, Code.org

If you’re a teacher who is interested in bringing computer science to your classroom, check out our Professional Learning opportunities.

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