#204 – A Journey From the Humanities to STEM, with Dr. Michelle Magallanez

Unpacking Education July 26, 2023 33 min

In this episode, we talk with Michelle Magallanez, Head of Special Projects at AVID Center. Despite being a self-defined mathophobe, Michelle has become a champion for STEM, Computer Science, and the transformative skills those areas of study can provide students.

Michelle wants students to understand that these fields are not about multiplication tables. They are about asking, “How are you a problem solver that can use technology to improve the world?” Through computer science and STEM, Michelle strongly believes that we can help students become the “empathetic, ethical problem solvers of the future.”

Tune in and be inspired to connect your students to a world of science, technology, engineering, math, and computer science.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

We recognize the importance of opportunity knowledge for students so that they can imagine themselves in the shoes of future problem solvers.

Dr. Michelle Magallanez, Head of Special Projects at AVID


The following resources are available from AVID and on AVID Open Access to explore related topics in more depth:

Developing Future-Ready Skills

STEM and Computer Science are about so much more than math and coding. They’re about developing computational thinking and critical analysis skills that can become the foundation for future problem solvers and leaders.

Michelle explains that helping students understand computational thinking “helps them unpack and solve problems across content areas and in the real world.” It also helps expose students to new career pathways and additional ways they can reach their potential. Michelle feels these skills are essential for all students, not just those in STEM classes. She says, “I don’t think I can say it enough. How can we integrate computational thinking across content areas K–12 so that our students can be prepared for what tomorrow brings?”

Throughout our conversation, Michelle’s passion for STEM, computer science, and student potential shines through. The following are a few highlights.

  • About Our Guest: Michelle Magallanez is the Head of Special Projects at AVID Center. Part of her role involves leading AVID Open Access and the Unpacking Education Podcast. Michelle is also a CSTA Equity Fellow and a Cultural Competence in Computing Fellow at Duke University.
  • No Early Introduction to STEM: Growing up in Arizona, Michelle wasn’t exposed to STEM or computer science careers. She says, “The ideas that are now driving what the world is looking at today, innovation and what’s happening, those were so far from my reality. I was really only exposed to traditional career tracks growing up.”
  • Math Phobia: Michelle can still remember math phobia striking in third grade. She says that math phobia “steered me away from early on what STEM and CS could do, even though I was super curious about all of the fun things people were doing in that space when I was little.” Because she was talented with languages, she was steered in that direction instead.
  • Relational Capacity: Human connections have been important ingredients in steering Michelle’s learning and professional pathways. “I fell in love with medieval literature really because of my professor,” she says, and she eventually went on to earn a PhD in Medieval French Literature. Later, a conversation at a dinner party turned into a job opportunity with LeapFrog, an ed tech company focused on building reading comprehension in young learners. In both cases, relational capacity played a key role in moving her forward.
  • A Foundational Experience: Working at LeapFrog became what Michelle describes as “an absolute foundational experience” in her career and taught her everything she needed to know about design thinking. She adds, “It ended up being the perfect opportunity, so it was a chance to bring French together with my interest in culture and learning something completely new.”
  • More Than Math: Despite her math phobia, Michelle has excelled in the areas of STEM and computer science to become an award-winning interaction designer. She encourages everyone to consider STEM and computer science fields and says, “If you are excited or interested in careers associated with STEM and CS, but you’re worried that your math skills aren’t necessarily there, it’s okay because it’s not just about math. It’s about being able to look at patterns, finding different ideas that most people may overlook.” She adds, “There’s so much creativity that you can bring into CS and STEM that I think gets overlooked because of our focus in the educational space on passing that algebra math gate that is so often the obstacle for a lot of kids to get into more rigorous CS courses.”
  • A Gateway Literacy: Michelle says it’s important to build “awareness of the value of computational thinking and the critical thinking mindsets associated with both STEM and computer science.” She adds, “I’m a firm believer that it is through computational thinking that we’re about to really help develop other literacies in our kiddos, whether we’re talking about reading literacy, math literacy. Once we’re able to help students understand that the process that they go through with computational thinking helps them unpack and solve problems across content areas, and in the real world, you’re really able to help kiddos open up their horizons for what they can potentially do.”
  • Being a Part of Fellowships: Michelle is grateful for the opportunity to be a CSTA Equity Fellow and a Cultural Competence in Computing Fellow at Duke University. She says, “It’s very much been an amazing opportunity to network with educators across the country and to be able to build my voice in this space to share how important it is to do this work so that it doesn’t become pigeon-holed as an elective, but these are ideas that will really help change how we’re educating our kiddos for the future.”
  • Mexican American Heritage: “My background plays such an important role to my identity,” says Michelle, “and really it’s that concept of identity in society that is the throughline through all of my work.” She adds, “Being a Mexican American and being an advocate for STEM and CS means now I can help kiddos like me and my sister have more opportunities that they have never even imagined because every single kiddo can do this work, even if they’re math phobic.”
  • Opportunity Knowledge: Too often, students don’t know about career opportunities in the CS and STEM world. Michelle says, “I think it’s so important to really honor the different aspects of each child’s personality, and when that child doesn’t have an advocate in their school or at their home or in their community, how can we help kiddos realize that the curiosity and the creativity that they have can be applied in this space? And that’s why the concept of opportunity knowledge is so important for me.”
  • All Kids Belong: Not all students feel like they belong in the computer science and STEM space. Michelle believes we need to change that. She asks, “How do we help each of those kiddos bring their full self and their lived experience into the classroom so that they’re advocating for themselves and beginning to own their own learning process?”

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is your experience with STEM and computer science fields?
  • What skills can be developed through STEM and computer science?
  • What careers are available in the STEM and computer science fields?
  • Why is opportunity knowledge so important?
  • How can STEM and computer science be integrated throughout the K–12 curriculum?