June 24, 2024


Built General Tough

Charlotte teacher wins Amazon Future Engineer teacher award

Creativity and fun are feeding Victoria Hall’s curiosity in computer science.

It’s the ideal combination that keeps the eighth-grade Charlotte student wanting more.

“One of my favorite assignments is probably a Code.org assignment,” she said. “There was one where we did a project and we got to make our own characters with our faces and all these different effects on it.

“I like doing things that are creative, and that’s a lot of what (the) class is about.”

Victoria is a student in Michelle Pierce’s computer science class at Mallard Creek STEM Academy. Pierce, since she started at the school in 2018, has been on a mission to expose more students to the field — and it’s working.

Amazon named Pierce a 2021 Future Engineer Teacher of the Year. She’s one of 10 educators from across the country recognized for her work to inspire students from underserved and historically underrepresented communities to pursue careers in computer science and robotics.

“She takes her time with everybody,” Victoria said. “She doesn’t rush us to finish assignments. She’ll give us a whole two days to finish something and then even if it’s not done, we can still get extensions.

“Everybody always gets their work done.”

From BBQ to coding

The 43-year-old Pierce was an elementary school teacher before taking a step away from the classroom in 2015 to co-own a barbecue food truck and catering company with her husband.

While looking for a school for one of her two children, she visited Mallard Creek STEM Academy and met Principal Deanna Smith.

“I knew I wanted to recruit Michelle because of her investment in education for her own children,” Smith said. “She asked all of the right questions while doing her research to decide if MCSA was the right school for her kids. Obviously based on her choice, our values were aligned. Namely that every child can learn and it’s up to us to help overcome any potential barriers they might have.”

Pierce substituted at the school before becoming the middle school computer science teacher three years ago.

“I love the challenge of teaching something to students that would seem boring or difficult and flipping it so that it is interesting,” Pierce said, “and introducing something to them that they may not have otherwise considered trying.”

Pierce has been working with sixth- through eighth-graders on lessons in digital citizenship and coding, among other STEM lessons. This year, she’ll also work with K-5 students on a digital citizenship curriculum, where she’ll teach a series of lessons that include how to use technology appropriately, the definition of cyberbullying and teaching children how to balance technology usage.

“A lot of computer science is about exposure,” Pierce said. “If you’re not exposed to seeing people who look like you in the field, the thought never crosses your mind that it’s an option.”

Pierce said she’s always been around computer science — her father went to college to study the field.

“I’m a lifelong learner looking for ways to be a better teacher to my students,” Pierce said. “My goal is to make computer science relatable and enjoyable so that all students have an equal opportunity for quality learning.

“I also work to teach my students life lessons such as problem solving, teamwork, perseverance, and patience.”

‘Teaching in real-life scenarios’

Students like Victoria, who have an interest in computer science, are what the industry wants — and needs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects computer science research jobs will grow 19% by 2026, yet women earn 18% of computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.

The percentage of women working in computer science-related professions has declined since the 1990s, dropping from 35% to 26%, according to data reported by ComputerScience.org, a Red Ventures company that follows industry and education trends.

“Michelle makes computer science relatable,” said Smith, the principal.

“She is great at using what she is teaching in real-life scenarios, giving agency to students in decision making related to projects, and she takes time to build relationships with students. This helps her to know how to help students overcome obstacles or to capitalize on the strengths that they have.”

The Amazon Future Engineer award comes with a cash prize for Pierce and a $25,000 gift to the school to be used for learning resources for students.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer