Undergrad Research Highlights

Designing Search Engines & Recommender Systems for Children

Ashlee Milton

Ashlee Milton, Computer Science, Boise State University

Currently pursuing a master’s degree at her recent alma mater, Boise State University, Ashlee Milton investigates problems related to information retrieval for niche user groups, especially children. Her work has resulted in four publications at ACM conferences and the Aslib Journal of Information Management.

Ashlee’s start in research was serendipitous. In her undergraduate studies at Boise State, she initially approached her professor, Dr. Sole Pera, about tutoring for her class, Theory of Computation. Later in that same conversation, Dr Pera invited Ashlee to join her research group, the People and Information Research Team (PIReT). She first started examining how search engines respond to children. Ashlee explained, “Most search engines and recommender systems are designed with adults in mind, but children also use these systems and have very different needs and abilities.” She further expanded her research to studying and designing recommender systems for children.

Her research took various forms, ranging from studying existing systems to building her own. She investigated the complex relationships between children and search engines. In a paper at the 2019 KidRec Conference, she articulated the need for evaluation frameworks that assess search engine performance in a classroom setting. She also conducted an empirical analysis of how search engines respond to children’s queries, which was published in a paper in the Aslib Journal of Information Management. She developed and studied her own book recommender system specifically designed for children as well. At the 2019 Workshop on the Impact of Recommender Systems (ImpactRS), she presented a poster on how recommender systems could be used to support learning in children. In addition, she demonstrated her book recommender system at the 2019 Conference on Recommender Systems (RecSys). “I’ve been very lucky in being able to explore what interests me within my domain,” Ashlee said.

Looking back on her undergraduate research experience, she was grateful to have worked in a “research neighborhood,” as it was called at Boise State. It gave her and her fellow researchers a space to brainstorm, ask one another questions, and collaborate. She also found support through the ACM-W chapter at her school. With those pillars of support, she was able to succeed as a first-generation college student, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and as someone with mental health diagnoses. Ashlee reflected, “I have been very fortunate in not having my identities keep me from pursuing my research.”

When she first started college, Ashlee never intended to pursue any further education after her undergraduate degree. Due to her deep passion for her research, she is now completing a master’s degree and is considering a PhD in the future. In her master’s at Boise State University, Ashlee continues to pursue her research interests in information retrieval for children. She encourages all undergraduates interested in research to expose themselves to different opportunities. “The biggest hurdle is putting yourself out there. I would have never gotten the opportunity to pursue my research if I hadn’t asked.”

-Written and edited by Jean Salac