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Computer Scientist Kathi Fisler Receives WPI's 2015 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize

Awarded at Commencement, the prize recognizes faculty members for excellence in all relevant areas of performance, including teaching, research, and advising

May 16, 2015
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From left, President Laurie Leshin, Chairman Philip Ryan, Fisler, and Provost Eric Overström.

Kathi Fisler, professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), received the 2015 Chairman's Exemplary Faculty Prize during the university’s 147th Commencement exercises today.

The prize, in the amount of $10,000, recognizes faculty members who excel in all relevant areas of faculty performance, including teaching, research and scholarship, and advising. The tradition of awarding the prize was established in 2007 through the personal philanthropy of Donald K. Peterson '71, then chairman of the WPI Board of Trustees. It was continued by current board chairman Philip B. Ryan '65.

Kathi Fisler has conducted research exploring the problems that stem from how human users understand—or fail to understand—computers. In 2001, for example, she won a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the most prestigious NSF award for young faculty members, for research on computer-aided verification. The work fell within the larger realm of formal methods, which builds mathematical models of software and hardware systems to identify design flaws. She has also applied formal methods to the development of tools to address how people can undermine efforts to keep computer systems secure.

Her current scholarship focuses on computing education. She is co-director of Bootstrap, a project that teaches students aged 12 to 16 algebraic and geometric concepts through computer programming. Having engaged thousands of students nationwide, the program was adopted in 2014 as the middle-school math curriculum by Code.org, an organization working to bring computing education to all K-12 schools. It has also been adopted by CSNYC and MassCAN, regional organizations fostering K-12 computing education.

Her research has brought Fisler to the attention of organizations seeking to strengthen computer education at all levels. As a member of the SIGPLAN Education Board, she helped design the programming language component of new undergraduate computer science curriculum guidelines developed by the Association for Computing Machinery. She currently serves on the Massachusetts Digital Literacy and Computer Science Standards Panel, which is determining how to integrate computer science into the state's K-12 technology literacy standards.

Fisler has also contributed to innovations in computer education at WPI. Though it is not her area of expertise, she led the charge to assure that undergraduates at WPI can learn about software security, even immersing herself in the subject so she could develop and teach the first course. It was a stepping stone toward deepening WPI's cybersecurity offerings, which led, in turn, to recognition for WPI as a National Security Administration/Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence in Information Assurance Research.

Fisler went on to become the driving force behind the launch of WPI's cross-disciplinary academic cybersecurity program, which offers graduate programs that touch on the human and organizational contexts of security. She was also the principal investigator for a $4.4 million NSF award through the Scholarship for Service program that will help the university fill a critical need for highly trained cybersecurity experts to work in government. In 2004, she received WPI's Romeo Moruzzi Young Faculty Award for Educational Innovation for her efforts to help revamp the first-year and sophomore-level computer science curriculum and for her development of an innovative programming language course.

A WPI faculty member since 2000, she holds a BA in computer science and Asian studies from Williams College and an MS and a PhD in computer science at Indiana University. She held a postdoctoral appointment at Rice University before joining WPI.