Cal Poly Professor Receives CSU Honor for Innovation and Leadership
Zoë Wood sparked interest in computer science by integrating art, reaching out to women and finding a lost World War II plane
SAN LUIS OBISPO -- Professor Zoë Wood, who has worked to increase the number of women studying computer science, designed curriculums for all levels of computer science education, and helped students find a lost World War II plane near Italy, has been honored with a 2018 Faculty Innovation and Leadership Award by the California State University Chancellor’s Office.
The faculty-led selection committee reviewed more than 360 nominations from all 23 CSU campuses. The honor recognizes those educators who redesign courses, apply innovative teaching practices, and more effectively use data to address equity gaps.
“I feel like there is so much more work to be done,” said Wood, who joined the Computer Science Department in 2003. “I also work with colleagues who likewise are doing their best to provide opportunities and innovation, so I am humbled by this honor.”
After graduating from UC Santa Cruz with a major in American Studies and Women’s Studies, Wood began her career working at her alma mater.
However, as the dotcom industry was exploding, she decided to pursue a computer science degree. From there she eventually earned her doctorate from Caltech. Her field, computer graphics, combines programming, math and art
“Computer science is like a great big puzzle, and I love puzzles,” she said.
She has shared those passions with other students. At the same time, her work is respected among peers, as evidenced by the fact that her publications have been cited more than 1,100 times. She has four different peer-reviewed publications that span all levels of computer science education, including university, high school and elementary school, and that broadly focus on making computer science education more engaging and accessible.
Wood has increased the number of underrepresented students in her field through research projects, outreach activities and advising the student club Women Involved in Software and Hardware (WISH). She also co-created an interdisciplinary minor between computer science and art, Computing for the Interactive Arts, which has boasted more than 60 percent female students.
“When I started at Cal Poly, there were approximately 9 percent female students in the computer science major,” she said. “At this point, there is close to 24 percent; this is in large part because we have been actively addressing the problem. It is a huge priority for me. I really want women to feel comfortable trying out and sticking with computing.”
Nationwide, the number of female students pursuing computer science degrees has dropped considerably since the 1980s – something Wood noticed as a computer science student.
“It was fairly lonely,” she said. “And that’s part of the problem.”
To generate prospects for all computer science students, Wood also hosts speakers from industry, has taken students on numerous field trips, and has helped students obtain jobs with prestigious companies such as Industrial Light and Magic, Disney, Apple and Microsoft. At one time, eight of her students were working at Dreamworks.
She has also designed computer science curriculum for high school students and fifth graders, encouraging students to get interested in the subject at an early age.
In 2017, she created headlines when a group of students she took to Malta, an island country near Italy, found a lost British plane that had sunk in the Mediterranean Sea during World War II. The students used an autonomous underwater vehicle to find the wreck and then mapping technology to generate 3-D reconstructions.
“I think most students enjoy seeing the impact of their work and are keen to have their efforts be applied to a real world problem,” she said. “I am a curious person, so I love working on real world problems, too.”
She was nominated for the CSU honor by Ignatios Vakalis, prior chairman of the computer science department, who noted her passion for the subject and her innovative work to improve learning.
"Dr. Wood is a passionate and deeply engaging educator, an outstanding researcher, an empowering mentor and role model for students, and an amazing and inspiring colleague,” Vakalis said.
The honor comes with a $5,000 award to Wood and $10,000 for her department, to be used for professional activities related to the nomination.
While she did not initially imagine herself as a computer scientist Wood has thrived in the field and set out to offer alternative perspectives to get others into it.
“It is fast and fun and creative, and I think everyone should try it.”
Contact: Pat Pemberton
(805) 756-7402, (805) 235-0555
August 28, 2018