Back then Leap@CMU was called Andrew’s Leap. No matter, the leap was still huge — “an eye-opening experience,” says Brendan Meeder of the long-running summer enrichment program for middle-school and high-school students.
Until he’d participated in Andrew’s Leap as a high school student, Meeder’s computer science and robotics experience consisted of “casually programming websites” and making simple games. But in Andrew’s Leap, Meeder says, he got a “multi-faceted” overview of computer science as well as its connections to the world.
“Steven Rudich does a great job teaching,” Meeder says, “and on the robotics side, Matt Mason got me really excited about that field.”
After his experience with Leap, there was little doubt that Meeder wanted to go into computer science and attend Carnegie Mellon. In fact, he enjoyed the experience so much, that after two years with Leap he came back to serve as a teaching assistant in the program. And the summer before he enrolled at CMU, Meeder worked in Mason’s manipulation lab.
Young people today have a wealth of programming tools and robotics toys to choose from that didn’t exist a few years ago, he says. That — along with programs such as Leap@CMU —exposes them to the usefulness of computer science much earlier than that used to happen, Meeder says.
“It used to be that things were so hard, and all you could do was make simple ‘guess-a-number’ games in Visual Basic, or program a graphic calculator, and it was like, ‘Why should I bother?’” he says. “Now, the frameworks are there so that you can start building interesting things much faster. Yes, the barrier to entry is lower, and yes, the satisfaction of learning to build utilities is going down, but when you’re doing something now, in the physical world with something like an Arduino, it’s so much more rewarding.”
Meeder completed his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 2007, then left to work for Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., on speech recognition devices. But his heart was back in Pittsburgh, and he returned to CMU after 14 months to begin his Ph.D. under CMU’s Luis von Ahn and Manuel Blum.
“One of the courses that Luis was teaching at the time was on the mathematical modeling of the internet and social networks, and I was really attracted to that because it included theoretical math, which I love, plus, you could derive a lot of understanding of the internet from it,” Meeder says, “and that became my thesis topic.”
In 2011, Meeder was recruited by von Ahn to be one of the first employees to work for Duolingo. A language-learning app developed at CMU by alumni von Ahn and Severin Hacker Duolingo provides free online language education in 23 different languages to 100 million registered users. Meeder is one of those users; when we talked, he’d logged time with Duolingo for 840 consecutive days.
Although Duolingo is still growing, Meeder felt the urge to keep “learning as fast as I can,” and in April 2015, he joined Uber’s growing research center in Pittsburgh, where he works with many CMU alumni and former employees on vehicle technology, including autonomy, mapping and safety.
“It’s a magical place,” Meeder says. “There’s a lot of variety in the kind of research that needs to be done and the kind of software that needs to be written. It’s almost like a symphony, where everyone has a role.”
Meeder, who earned his Ph.D. from CMU in 2015, has had his own role in a real symphony. Until recently, he played bass trombone in CMU’s All-University Orchestra. In his spare time, he and his wife, fellow CMU alumna Ariel Levavi enjoy cooking, relaxing and walking around Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
“It’s really good to still be in Pittsburgh,” Meeder says. “With the number of companies like Uber and Google growing their research presence here, it’s really attractive to stick around after graduating.”
Main photo caption: Meeder strikes a campus pose at his CMU graduation.