Toni Vanhala

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller — Pioneer of Inclusive Computer Science

I got my first computer when I was four years old. I learned the alphabet by typing on the keyboard, while my mother read aloud BASIC programs. Working together, we diligently replicated the program listings printed in Mikrobitti magazine. Most of the time the finished program would not work, but we had to code review. A little later, I started to experiment with the code, trying things out in the rudimentary REPL of Vic-20 BASIC. This soon led me to write my first own programs.

Each year, we highlight one of the pioneers of computer science at the ClojuTRE conference. ClojuTRE 2019 gives kudos to Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, who had a part in implementing the BASIC programming language at Dartmouth College, and was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. degree in computer science. (Wikipedia)

Keller was a passionate advocate for the involvement of women in computing. She believed that everyone, not just computer scientists, should have access to computing. She also thought that computers could assist in learning and make us smarter. It seems fitting that I would learn both to read and to program using the BASIC language that she helped to birth.

Keller founded the computer science department at Clarke University and led it for twenty years. Little is known of her life before she joined Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1932. Keller died on January 10, 1985, at the age of 71.

Toni Vanhala