Women In Tech Honors Utah Alum

November 9, 2014


Helen Hu has seen the percentage of underrepresented minorities and women in the tech industry, and frankly, she says the numbers are “horrendous.” She took the initiative to change those numbers, and she’s being honored for making a difference.

“It certainly is a problem that women and other minorities are underrepresented in the industry,” said Hu, who earned her Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Utah in 2003. “But there are studies that show that when you have more women in management, these companies have more revenues. So it’s in the companies interest to have more diversity.”

So Hu set out to even those numbers, and her success is getting recognized. Earlier this month, she was honored with the 2014 Women Tech Council Education Excellence Award for her work promoting computer science education in the local high schools. She was one of 17 finalists, including University of Utah computer science graduate Sarah Hong.

“I have been working to try and increase the computer science opportunities for all students in Utah, especially before college,” Hu said.

Hu has always wanted to teach. Born and raised in New Jersey, she received her bachelor’s degree in computer science at Princeton and was encouraged by her mentor to pursue her graduate work at the University of Utah.

“When I was accepted to the program they brought all of us out there and showed us around and made it clear they valued us as potential grad students. That swayed me,” she said. “They clearly cared about our success.”

In the fall of 1996, she arrived in Utah and worked toward her doctorate. With so many career paths that she could have taken with a computer science degree, Hu was only interested in teaching other students. After receiving her Ph.D., she became a professor of computer science at Westminster College.

“There are other ways to use computing to change people’s lives but you get a face-to-face connection with teaching, and that’s what draws me to it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Hu has an equal passion for making sure there is a greater diversity of minorities and women in the tech sector and believes that effort needs to focus on high schools. She was awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to promote and educate teachers about a different approach to computer science in high schools that could interest more underrepresented students.

“It is very tempting to teach computer science with an eye on how to write the computer program, but that can drain the creativity and the fun out of the class,” she said. “In the real world, computer science is all about creativity and how to solve problems to make life better. That description of computer science appeals to a wide variety of students.”

So she is training teachers to conduct high school computer science courses that don’t even go into writing computer code in the first two units. Instead, they give context to computer science by focusing on its impact on everyday life.

So far, the program – which is a year and a half into the grant – is making a difference. Hu said the numbers of underrepresented students in high school computer science classes are rising. By the end of three years, 100 teachers will be trained to teach these courses in high schools across the state. Meanwhile, she’s pushing to make an AP Computer Science Principles course more available in high schools, and she hopes the Utah Office of Education can take over the professional development for these new computer science courses for teachers after the grant runs out. And of course, she will continue to pursue her first love – preparing college students for the next step in their lives.

“I enjoy teaching students, so this was always the career path,” Hu said. “Teaching is a fantastic way of making a difference in people’s lives.”

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