She's Changing the Way Our Kids Surf the Web

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The Internet is a behemoth, and it's growing every day. So how is a child to make sense of it all? How can she find what she needs as she writes, say, a school report on the solar system?

Dr. Eleni Miltsakaki is trying to help.

Her company, Choosito, analyzes the "linguistic content of every website in a real-time search to tell you the reading level of each site," she explains, turning the Internet into a "leveled library."

I asked Miltsakaki, who recently received a $1 million small business innovation grant from the National Science Foundation, how it all works.

First of all, congratulations on your success. Could you please explain to us what Choosito is?

Choosito is an educational search engine.

The size of the Internet is mind-blowing. It's probably around 1 trillion pages, with 100 million pages added every day. How can a teacher figure our which sites are written at the reading level of her third grade-students?

Being able to identify educational resources for different reading abilities is essential to the teacher who is striving to teach students information literacy and research skills.

How does it work?

Choosito is solving this problem by analyzing the linguistic content of websites in real time-search, to determine the reading level and subject of the site.

The engine is designed to help teachers and students in K-12 engage in inquiry-based learning, develop critical thinking and research skills by engaging with material that is relevant to their level and interest.

Sometimes people think teaching research skills is all about manipulating search engines with keywords to get them to bring you relevant research. While developing your inquiry and research question is an essential aspect of research, having to open and close irrelevant sites is not making anyone any smarter.

It's a waste of time.

Choosito's filtration of the web by reading-level allows teachers to implement differentiated learning. For the first time, it is possible for students of different reading ability in the same class to work on the same topic each working with resources at their own level.

Could you tell us the 'genesis story' of your company? How did Choosito come about?

In 2006, I had a career twist.

Up until then, I was focused on my research at the Institute of Research in Cognitive Science (University of Pennsylvania). My research focused on automated lingustic analysis of text. This area of research is called computational linguistics, often referred to as natural language processing and it's the research that has enabled computers to understand information and interact intelligently with humans.

Siri and Watson are probably the best known examples of the field. In 2006, I joined the faculty of the Graduate School of Education at Penn and, for several years, taught educational technology courses to graduate students who were already practicing teachers, or who were completing their certification.

I was fascinated by the prospect of applying my research in addressing real problems in education. Back then, use of the Internet was not as widespread in K-12 as it is today.

It was clear that the time was approaching quickly that it would become an integral part of the curriculum.

It was both exciting and scary.

How so?

Exciting because of the possibilities that were opening up for students.

Scary because this new medium was chaotic and unpredictable.

The most forward-looking teachers who had already introduced it to their classes had to spend hours to find websites that would be appropriate for their students to read and understand and containing information that was credible.

Search engines narrowed down the results to those relevant to the query, but you would still have to spend hours to glean which resources would be appropriate for your third grader, fifth grader, your struggling reader, your gifted students, and so on.

The problem is that the Internet, with all its incredible richness, is not a library and search engines are not librarians.

In the brick-and-mortar world, it's the school librarian who recommends (to each student) which book or books are appropriate for his level, and relevant for his or her project. It soon became clear that we needed to make sense of this gigantic resource as a librarian for the digital age.

As an agent that could analyze the content of sites to determine which ones would be appropriate for the struggling fifth grader, for example, working on a project about electric circuits or the typical seventh grader, trying to understand the significance of the Declaration of Independence by studying primary resources as well as biographies, maps, and historical data.

The startup environment seems to be very 'male,' especially the tech-startup space. Have you found that to be alienating?

Switching from being an academic to starting a tech company has been very challenging.

I knew already that the tech startup-space is male dominated, but living it gave me a whole new perspective. It is frustrating and trying every single day. So much so I have started laughing at it.

When I present on Choosito with a male member of my team at tech startup meet-ups, the technical questions are never addressed to me. People tend to think that I had the educational idea to build Choosito, and then hired a technical team to build it.

To be fair, the numbers are not helping.

In what sense?

It's true that only a small percentage of tech startups are founded by women with a technical background so when you meet a woman-founder, you assume that she lacks technical background. But thanks to the efforts of many women organizations promoting STEM and entrepreneurship, the situation is improving.

I am very optimistic that the next generation of women will assume more leadership positions, engineering jobs.

What advice do you have for girls who want to start their own company?

I have a 13-year-old daughter who has been inspired by attending several technology workshops organized by techgirlz and other girl-oriented groups.

As a result, she started an after school club called GLIST: girls lead in science and technology, where girls learn coding and develop innovative solutions to address social needs.

My advice for young girls is to join like-minded groups that will allow them to develop their technical skills and nurture their entrepreneurial aspirations in a safe and supporting environment.

What personality trait would you say you've relied on the most, to help you succeed as an entrepreneur?

Perseverance. You need to be confident, ask for advice, and accept criticism.

What's your hope for Choosito?

Choosito is turning the web into a leveled library of quality resources. My hope is that Choosito will make it not only possible but simple for teachers to engage students in inquiry-based learning, and develop the critical thinking skills they need to live and learn in the 21st century.

Image via Philly mag.