Sister Mary Kenneth Keller and Computers in Education

By Jaime Seltzer

Mary Kenneth Keller’s past is something of a mystery. Even her birth year is debatable! This may in part be due to the tradition of taking on a new name and something of a new identity when one takes holy vows. She was born either in 1913 or 1914 in Ohio, and entered the Sisters of Charity in 1932. Eight years later, she took her vows and became a nun.

The typical image of a nun in the media is not, perhaps, someone who takes a very active a role in the wider world. Mary Kenneth Keller, however, had a different view of her mission on earth. Shortly after becoming a nun, she attended DePaul University, where she obtained her bachelor’s degree in mathematics, and two masters’ degrees: one in math and one in physics.

She understood that the use of computers would lead to an exponential increase in the amount of information that was available to the average person at any given moment, and she saw great potential for the use of computers in education.

In 1958, she went to Dartmouth College to study mathematics and computers. At the time, the computer center at Dartmouth had a men-only rule, but this rule was broken for Keller. It was at Dartmouth that she helped to develop the computer programming language BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code). Like Grace Hopper’s COBOL, BASIC was a way of ‘translating’ the ones and zeroes of computer code into something more intuitive and straightforward. This dramatically changed the landscape of computer programming. With BASIC, a student could learn the rudiments of the programming language with a few days’ study and begin coding immediately.

Though you may find other sources that say differently, Keller was the first individual in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in computer science. Richard Wexelblat earned one in December of 1965, and Andries van Dam earned one in May of 1966; and other entries may say that the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in computer science was Barbara Liskov in 1968. However, Mary predates them all, having earned her degree in May of 1965 from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Later that year, she founded and became the head of the new Computer Science Department at Clarke College, where she worked until she passed away at the age of 71. At Clarke College, the computer center is called the Keller Computer Center in her honor.

Mary Kenneth Keller

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller and her Women in Science card.

Keller’s stance on computers was ahead of its time. She understood that the use of computers would lead to an exponential increase in the amount of information that was available to the average person at any given moment, and she saw great potential for the use of computers in education. She helped form the Association of Small Computer Users in Education (ASCUE), in order to help educators begin to use computers to help their students learn and grow.

Though Mary is still something of a mystery, the programming language she helped develop made computer programming less mysterious even to the most basic of novices.

References:
Crezo, A. (2013, October 14). The First Woman to Earn a PhD in Computer Science Was a Nun. In Mental Floss. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/53178/first-woman-earn-phd-computer-science-was-nun
London, R. L. (2012, November 21). Additional Information for “Who Earned the First Computer Science PhD?”. In Clarke University. Retrieved from http://www.clarke.edu/media/files/Academics/Departments/Computer_Science/First%20PhD%20Additional%20Info.pdf

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