Sister Mary: EdTech Pioneer

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There is a long history of nuns working in education. The first nuns in America arrived in New Orleans in 1727 from France and within months had opened a boarding school for girls. Some consider them as the country’s first professional elementary school teachers. As waves of immigration made a chiefly Protestant nation more Catholic, the influence of nuns in education spread.

Mary Kenneth Keller

But stories of nuns and technology, or their influence on educational technology specifically, are rarely told. So as this podcast series is about shining a light on the women who transformed teaching and learning through technology we wanted to right that wrong. That’s why we began this episode by taking you back to 1964 and the development of BASIC — the programming language that came pre-installed with most microcomputers in the 1970’s and 80’s. In fact, if you studied computer languages of any sort during that time and even up to the late 90’s, you might have studied BASIC at school.

The history books will tell us that BASIC was developed by John Kemeny and Thomas Kurtz at Dartmouth College. But what not many people know is that one of the key members of the team that worked on it was Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, a Roman Catholic nun and educator.

She became the first woman to work at the computer science center at Dartmouth College, which broke its male-only rule just so that she could work there.

In 1958, armed with a Master’s degree in Mathematics and Physics, she became the first woman to work at the computer science center at Dartmouth College, which broke its male-only rule just so that she could work there. In 1965, she and Irving Tang at Washington University in St. Louis were the first people to get a doctorate in computer science — so she’s also one of the first women to do so.

She went on to set up the computer science department at Clarke College in Iowa in 1965, which she then chaired for 20 years. She also established a Master’s programme for computer applications in education. In fact, she was one of the earliest advocates for women in computing, and believed that information was no good unless it could be accessed by more than just computer scientists.

Mary also helped to establish the College and University Eleven-Thirty Users Group in 1968, a program that connected schools using IBM 1130’s to automate functions and assist in teaching new curriculum regarding computer use outside of programming or computer science.

“For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process. We can make studies in artificial intelligence. Beyond that, this mechanism [the computer] can be used to assist humans in learning. As we are going to have more mature students in greater numbers as time goes on, this type of teaching will probably be increasingly important.” — Mary Kenneth Keller

Mary was clearly a pioneer, an innovator and a visionary with an eye firmly on the future of edtech. She imagined a world in which computers made people smarter and learned to think on their own. Keller said, “For the first time, we can now mechanically simulate the cognitive process. We can make studies in artificial intelligence. Beyond that, this mechanism [the computer] can be used to assist humans in learning. As we are going to have more mature students in greater numbers as time goes on, this type of teaching will probably be increasingly important.”

So don’t be surprised if you’ve not heard of Mary Kenneth Keller before. In our research for this episode few people had. Which gives us more reason to tell this story and ask you to share it.

You can get all the show notes for TechNuns, DOLS and Erasing Kittens here and read see the full transcript here.

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