HELENA — On Friday, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte was in Helena to highlight the importance of STEM education.
Gianforte visited Helena High School to present longtime computer science teacher Buffy Smith with the Spirit of Montana Commendation. The award recognized Smith for her work encouraging young people – especially young women – to pursue careers in technical fields.
Smith said she was proud to be honored.
“I like the award because I completely believe in the values – that it’s about being dedicated and working hard and being innovative,” she said. “I’ve tried to do that in my teaching career.”
Smith has been teaching at Helena High for 26 years, and teaching computer science for 20 of them. She said she’s seen a big jump in the number of students taking her computer classes, especially girls.
“I used to have maybe one girl; I’d always have classes that were completely male, and I don’t have any classes that are completely male anymore,” she said. “When you’re making a product, you need to have diverse people. Half of our population is female.”
Gianforte, who founded the successful software company RightNow Technologies in Bozeman, also talked to Smith’s students about the value of a STEM education and about his experiences starting businesses. He encouraged the students to study computer science in college – either as a major or a minor – saying it would help set them up for success in their careers.
“There’s only two types of people in the world: those that use computers and those that know how to program computers and teach them to do new things,” Gianforte said. “It doesn’t matter what career you go into – whether it’s manufacturing, tourism, agriculture, or high-tech, you’re going to need a background in computers.”
Over several semesters of classes, Smith’s students learn to program in computing languages like Python and Java. Some of the advanced students are now moving on to robotics – 3D printing pieces, soldering the circuit boards and coding them. Smith said those projects are possible thanks to a grant from the Helena Education Foundation.