Caitlin Kelleher, PhD, has received a prestigious research fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Kelleher is the Hugo F. & Ina Champ Urbauer Career Development Assistant Professor in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis.
The two-year, $50,000 fellowship supports early-career scientists and scholars in science, mathematics, economics and computer science. Fellows may use the funds for equipment, technical assistance, professional travel or trainee support.
Candidates must be nominated by a department head or another senior researcher. Fellows are selected on the basis of their independent research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become leaders in the scientific community through their contributions to their field.
Kelleher’s interest in broadening access to programming began as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University. In working with girls in middle school, she found that making programming easier was not enough.
To get girls to engage with programming, Kelleher created a programming system, called Storytelling Alice, which presented programming as a means to the end of creating animated stories. She found that Storytelling Alice greatly increased interest in programming: 51 percent of participants using the program in her study snuck extra time to work on their programs.
But she also found that many children in the United States don’t have access to a computer science class before college.
When she joined the Washington University faculty in 2007, Kelleher began work on Looking Glass, a programming environment that explores a variety of mechanisms to support kids learning to program without the support of a teacher or classroom setting.
Similar to Storytelling Alice, Looking Glass users write programs to create animated stories that they can share through an online community, where they become potential learning aids.
To allow users to learn new things from shared programs, Kelleher and her research group have built tools that enable users to select animations of interest and remix them into their own programs; explore unfamiliar program behavior; automatically generate effective tutorials based on the selected code; and harness potential help from expert mentors.
While ensuring that the next generation of kids can apply the tools of computing to tomorrow’s problems remains an important goal, Kelleher also is interested in making programming tools for professionals. She and her group have created a version of Looking Glass that enables physical and occupational therapists to create games for stroke rehabilitation.
“Since each individual’s recovery is unique, the environment gives therapists the ability to build a game specifically designed for that patient’s needs,” she said.
Kelleher will use the funding from the Sloan Foundation to continue researching how to make computer programming accessible to everyone.
Founded in 1934, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes grants to support original research and broad-based education related to science, technology and economic performance; and to improve the quality of American life. It is interested in projects that it expects will result in a strong benefit to society.
Past recipients of Sloan Research Fellowships have gone on to win 38 Nobel prizes, 14 Fields Medals and eight John Bates Clark awards.