Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997



Nearly three decades have passed since Hopkins's Julian Stanley began his "grand experiment" to identify young math and science prodigies and radically accelerate their academic course. How they've fared depends on which one you ask.

S C I E N C E    A N D    T E C H N O L O G Y

Yesterday's Whiz Kids:
Where Are They Today?

By Melissa Hendricks

Stanley with a group of precocious youth in the early 1980s.

THE OPENING DAY CROWD is as buoyant as ever. But when Cal Ripken hits a homer into the clear blue heavens above Camden Yards, the fans go ballistic. Feet stamp in unison. Bullhorns blare. Nonstop music plays harder.

In the press box behind home plate, spirited men put down their hot dogs and sodas, and start typing on their laptops. Rex Barney, the famous "voice of the Orioles," announces that Ripken has made his first home run of the 1997 season.

Seated next to Barney, in the middle of the paparazzi, glitter, and cheers is a tall, pale, redheaded man. He picks up a black pen and writes "__7" on the official scoresheet. In an authoritative radio announcer's voice, he then reports through a microphone, "For Cal Ripken, that was home run number one on a 1-0 pitch."

Jacobson on the job at Camden Yards.
Mark Jacobson is an official scorekeeper for the Baltimore Orioles. Like the people around him, he loves baseball. He attends most games, keeps score for about half of them, and does some freelance radio sportscasting on the side. Few if any of his press box buddies and clubhouse acquaintances realize that there is a certain irony in Jacobson's being here.

Jacobson is a former math whiz kid. When he was a child, he was doing algebra when his friends were struggling through long division, calculus when they were battling algebra. He devoured math games, baffled teachers. He started college when he was barely 15. Now, for his "day job," he does math in a high-security role for the Defense Department. But for at least half the Orioles games, Jacobson sits in the front row of the press box, eyes glued to the field, jotting down every hit, run, and error. It's a task, most days, he adores.

Jacobson was one of a select group of mathematically precocious children who, with the assistance of Hopkins psychologist Julian Stanley, speeded up the pace of their education and enrolled in college at an early age. Under Stanley's purview, many "radical accelerants" skipped one, two, three, or more grades to attend college at an early age. They included Chi-Bin Chien, the youngest student to graduate from Hopkins, who received his diploma at age 15 years, 7 months.

Stanley's radical accelerants were part of a grand experiment, which came to be called the Study for Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). Though the design of the experiment would evolve, its objective remained the same: to identify mathematically and scientifically precocious students and find out how best to educate them. The subjects: 12- and 13-year-olds who had achieved high test scores, especially on the mathematical reasoning section of the SAT, the college board admissions test normally taken by high school juniors and seniors. The method: to accelerate the pace of their math and science education. For example, instead of learning algebra I in the normal 135 hours, students in intensive accelerated summer and Saturday morning programs first at Hopkins and later elsewhere would master algebra in just 90 hours. Many participants would enroll in college at an early age. The results: to be assessed periodically through surveys and questionnaires for the next 50 years.

Critics assailed Stanley. "There was every kind of objection," he says. The critics said that gifted children would not be socially mature enough to advance grades, that they could be scarred socially, emotionally, and even intellectually. "Early to ripe, early to rot," was the belief, says Stanley.

Stanley believed gifted children might "rot," becoming mentally lazy by following a conventional academic pace.
But Stanley persisted, believing that gifted children might well "rot," becoming bored and mentally lazy, by following the conventional educational pace. Further, Stanley believed that these children are a great national resource, a view he still maintains. His interest in the gifted, he says, is probably autobiographical. Even today in this tall, large-boned man whose chunky glasses are slightly askew, there are lingering reminders of the gangly "nerd" he says he once was. A precocious child, he was taught in a barebones Depression-era school system and grew up in a neighborhood where intellect took a backseat to toughness. In college, he says, he "loafed terribly," and not until he encountered the intellectual vacuum of life as an enlisted man in World War II did he finally become motivated to achieve highly.

Today he is 78, and remains at Hopkins as director of SMPY. Though semi-retired, he still comes into the office six days a week. A gentlemanly academic who retains a faint Georgia accent, Stanley still lights up when he talks about the statistical and personal aspects of his experiment.

He came to Hopkins in 1967. After informally helping a few precocious students to accelerate their education, he received a $266,000, five-year grant from the Spencer Foundation in 1971 to support continuing work on research and education of the gifted. In subsequent years, he would receive more funding, and SMPY would burgeon to include thousands of students, and spawn similar programs nationwide. Stanley also would earn kudos from colleagues around the world. Renowned Stanford educational psychologist Lee Cronbach says that Stanley will go down in history as one of the most influential psychologists to study the gifted.

Over the years, as Stanley and his colleagues continued to learn from the Grand Experiment, their methods evolved. Today, Stanley has tempered his initial enthusiasm for radical acceleration. But he remains staunchly convinced that precocious youth have special needs that must be met in order not to squander their talents.

When Stanley met them, the prodigies were pre-adolescents or young teenagers, as full of the promise of future excellence as this year's major league rookies. More than two decades later, the first of his prodigies are now turning the corner on middle age, climbing aboard the mellow boat from which one gains a broader view of the life that has passed. Where are the whiz kids today?

THIS WOULD BE A MORE dramatic story if all the precocious youth rejected intellectual pursuits for sheepherding, suffered mental breakdowns as did the piano prodigy in the movie Shine, or, on the other hand, became Nobel laureates. But the truth for most of them lies somewhere in between.

Preliminary results of a 20-year follow-up of SMPY cohort I (those identified in the early 1970s) indicate that most of the participants have been successful. Many achieved advanced degrees. Many rose to outstanding careers at an early age.

The investigators, Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski, reported the results in April in Washington, D.C., at a meeting of child development specialists. Benbow and Lubinski now co-direct a branch of SMPY at Iowa State University, in Ames, and continue SMPY's longitudinal research program (which now includes more than 5,000 subjects). Benbow was Stanley's student and later his collaborator, as associate director of SMPY at Hopkins for several years before moving to Iowa State.

Based on questionnaires completed by 715 men and 483 women, Benbow and Lubinski reported that about 70 percent of the respondents believed acceleration helped their educational planning. They overwhelmingly support grouping students by ability and accelerating advanced students. "The loud and clear finding," says Lubinski, "is that [precocious youth] want to learn at their own pace. Also, we find that acceleration did not hurt them socially."

Not every student who participated in SMPY has had a glowing career (though it is hard to tell how much of any success or failure can be attributed to the program). Some of the participants have had personal troubles. Some dropped out of college or graduate school. A few years ago, Stanley heard that one was delivering pizzas.

Neither did every former student endorse the accelerated program. In a letter to Psychology Today in 1987, Steven Holtzman wrote: "The program pushed me too hard and too fast. It turned me off to math, and left me ill at ease in the company of 'nongifted' people.

"In addition, all of the attention to test scores and higher achievement made me more competitive than I think I might otherwise have been. It seems to me that we could do with a little less achievement and a lot more attention to social and intellectual appreciation and compassion."

Benbow and Lubinski's initial results reveal that 9 percent of the men and 5 percent of the women said that acceleration had a negative or somewhat negative effect on their educational planning. Four percent of the men and 5 percent of the women said it had a negative effect on career planning.

On balance, however, the researchers conclude, the positive results vastly outweigh the negative. "Every treatment that works has a negative effect for a very small subset of the population," says Lubinski, just as penicillin is harmful to a small minority of people, but benefits the vast majority.

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1968. Vietnam War protesters were burning flags and women were burning their bras, and a 12-year-old boy named Joseph Louis Bates discovered and devoured computer science. A student in a summer computing course given at Hopkins, Bates was so good that he began teaching course material to graduate students. Bates' instructor, Doris Lidtke, sought the help of Stanley.

The 50-year-old Stanley had already gained international fame as a specialist in statistics, testing, and experimental design. But he had never thought about working directly with the gifted until he met Joe Bates.

Stanley gave Bates a battery of tests including the math SAT, on which Bates scored in the 700s. He then tried to convince a local high school to allow Bates to take 11th grade courses, but the school refused. So he requested and gained permission from former Hopkins Dean Carl Swanson for Bates to enroll at Hopkins. Swanson consented, and at age 13, Bates began taking courses in physics and computer science.

The youngster sailed through Hopkins with high marks. By age 17, he had earned his B.A. and master's degree in computer science, and moved on to pursue a doctorate in computing at Cornell. He is now a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University. Though Bates would not return phone calls, in 1993 Science News reported that his work involves using artificial intelligence to create virtual reality dramatic simulations. By all apparent measures he is a success. Such stories would defy the critics.

STANLEY'S NEXT WHIZ KID was Jonathan Edwards.

When Edwards was growing up in a north Baltimore suburb, his mother told him stories about Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and other people she considered geniuses. Edwards secretly wished he would become a genius. His parents stressed intellectual achievement, thought sports were a waste of time. When he was in 7th and 8th grade, his parents arranged for him to take algebra, trigonometry, and calculus at local colleges. Edwards drank up all that was offered. From a very young age, he planned to get a PhD.

His regular school was another story. "I was way beyond my teachers," he says. Bored, he started to rebel against "silly rules" such as those against wearing a jacket in school, though, he admits, he was as much a rebel in search of a cause.

Junior high school, says Edwards, "was incredibly horrible. I was intellectually different, and socially introspective. I did not have the social skills to hide my intellectual differences. Being very different is not a good thing to be in junior high school, and I didn't make any effort to fit in."

Edwards's parents had heard about Joe Bates, and called up Stanley to see what he could do for their son. Stanley asked the 13-year-old to take the SAT, saw that the boy's scores were on a par with Bates's, and helped arrange for Edwards's admission to Hopkins in 1970.

"As far as I was concerned, Hopkins was a savior," says Edwards. "It was a wonderful adventure, for the first couple of years, anyway. For the first time, I was doing interesting things around people I could talk to. It was the best thing that could have happened to me."

He used to get up at 5 each morning to catch the first bus from his home to Hopkins. Later, he convinced the chairman of Electrical Engineering to give him a key to the department so that he could sleep on an office sofa rather than waste precious time commuting.

The highlight of his adventure was computer science. When Edwards picked up his first computer manual, he says, "It was just obvious. It was as if I'd already read the book." He gravitated toward "double E," the Electrical Engineering Department. The department had a spare PDP-11, one of the rare computers on campus. It was a teletype machine, six feet high, which in the pioneering days of computing was better than gold. Edwards used it to write a new computer language.

The honeymoon ended around the time he turned 16, however. He did not encounter an intellectual hurdle, but a hormonal one: puberty. "It kind of threw me off my balance," he remarks.

"Around junior year, I started trying to date, awkwardly," he says. Short for his age, he had no luck getting dates with classmates who were all older and more mature than he was. Worse, the distraction of puberty was interfering with his previously acute ability to focus on his studies. He even began to question his dream of pursuing a PhD.

Edwards took off a semester during his senior year, and then, in 1974, when he was 17, he left Hopkins altogether. His parents were sorely disappointed, as was Stanley. "I tried everything I could to get him to finish," says Stanley. "But he had a perverse proudness."

As Edwards recalls, "I was a failure socially, and only just realizing it. I was not used to dealing with failure. I felt a need to take charge of my life. Making some big change seemed necessary." It was, he says, "the usual adolescent rebellion, I suppose."

The change was a move to MIT, where he thought he might find other students more like himself. He started courses in artificial intelligence. "But then I decided that neither AI nor academics was for me," he says. So he quit academics for good, just one course short of his B.A.

To this day, he has not earned a B.A., nor even a junior high school diploma, a fact, he says, "I'm quite proud of. I decided degrees are only stepping stones to academia."

Today, the 40-year-old Edwards is the chief technology officer-- "head nerd," he calls it--of a company he founded called Intranet. The company has an annual revenue of $17 million, employs 140 people, and has a partnership with IBM. "I'm not rich but I make a comfortable living," he says, "and have the more important benefit of being my own boss."

Rather than taking an academic route, Edwards trod the path of entrepreneurship. After leaving MIT, he started working as a computer programmer for Technology Management Incorporated (TMI), and moved into the Cambridge Zen Center, a communal group house whose members practiced meditation led by a Korean master. During a year spent making "big, philosophical decisions," he says, "I decided that computers were where I was going to make my mark."

The time was ripe. Edwards joined the first wave of the computing gold rush. At TMI, and when he was only 18, he built the first fully automated money transfer system for Citibank. He then branched out, performing other programming feats as a subcontractor.

Edwards founded Intranet a few years later, where he continues to design money-transfer systems. "Entrepreneurship," he finds, "is the ultimate academic freedom."

Though he is now married and has two young children, Edwards says he still is, and always will be, a loner. There is nothing he likes better than locking himself in his home office to work on a programming problem. "I'm still unbalanced," he says. "I'm intensely into computer science and technology. I do not watch the Superbowl."

Looking back on his teenage years, Edwards says he does not regret going to college at an early age. "Had I not been plucked out of junior high school, I think I would have become deeply angry and alienated and self-destructive. That is what happens to many very bright people."

AND SO IT GOES. The SMPY files are replete with success stories, each with a slightly different twist. Some have taken the accelerated path to success within academia, and have never looked back. Elaine Evelina Tseng is one such example. After joining the vaunted SMPY "700 Club" at age 12 (by scoring at least a 700 on the math section of the SAT), she was given the chance to attend an academic summer program for gifted students. She enrolled at MIT four years later, graduated early, then completed a joint medical degree program at Harvard and MIT. Today, in her late 20s, she is in the fourth year of a challenging nine-year cardiac surgery residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The summer program she attended after being identified through SMPY, she says, "was the first time I'd felt challenged."

Likewise, Eugene Stark, who graduate from Hopkins with honors in 1977 at age 17, is today a professor of computer science at the University of New York at Stony Brook. While other colleagues his age are struggling to launch their academic careers, the 37-year-old Stark is tenured, and now has the opportunity to focus on his family--for which he's grateful. Married and with two young children, he says, "I have no career goals until I get out from under the current [family] responsibilities."

Surgeon Eric Strauch, who entered college at age 15, says he didn't find his academic stride until medical school, four years later.
Others, like Eric Strauch, took a bit longer to find their stride. Strauch attended a SMPY summer program in 1977, and says, "There were two groups of kids: Those whose parents wanted them to do it but who didn't really want to. And those who were fired up, into math." Strauch was in the former group, though being a good test-taker, he always passed the classes. He entered Hopkins in 1980, at age 15, and did only so-so academically. He joined a fraternity, which Stanley implored him to quit. "He told me that when you join a fraternity your grade point average goes down at least half a point," he says. Strauch finally became motivated at medical school, he says, which he entered at age 19. Today he's an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

There were also whiz kids, much like Jonathan Edwards, who started out full speed on the academic track, but ended up taking a different turn.

"Had I not been plucked out of junior high school," says Edwards, "I think I would have become deeply angry and alienated and self-destructive. That happens to many very bright people."
Like Edwards, Orioles scorekeeper Mark Jacobson was bored and frustrated in junior high school. Jacobson, though, did not share Edwards's rebellious spirit. He was gregarious, and loved baseball as much as math. In junior high, he was at first allowed to work ahead in math, but then a teacher prevented him from going faster than the rest of the class. So after reading an article about Stanley and SMPY in the New York Times, his father called the Hopkins professor, who said the teenager might be a candidate for radical acceleration.

In the fall of 1973, having just turned 15, Jacobson enrolled at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. He double-majored in math and mathematical statistics, made the dean's list most semesters, earned awards in physics and statistics, and in four years moved to Stanford to pursue a PhD in statistics.

Though he did well at Stanford, he was at odds with whether he wanted to pursue an academic career in statistics. His young age, he says, was not the reason. He just did not feel like he belonged in the academic track. When studying for exams reached fever pitch, he escaped to the ballpark and, at the invitation of a friend back East, began doing spot baseball reports as a stringer for a radio talk show.

Four years into his graduate program at Stanford, Jacobson's advisor announced he was leaving for Harvard. Jacobson decided to move too, back to the D.C. area. He told himself that he could always take the train to Cambridge to discuss the progress he was making on his dissertation. "Ha, ha." Jacobson forces a laugh. That may still happen, but now, at 38, he is still ABD. (all-but-dissertation), a fact that bothers him slightly only because it is unfinished business. "But I haven't slammed the door on it," he says. "It's quite possible I will come up with a thesis."

For former whiz kid Jacobson, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson is a welcome release from his high-security day job with the Defense Department. "They don't know me as a mathematician," he says. "They know me as a baseball guy."
Instead, he started work as a computer programmer for GW, which eventually led to his present position with the Defense Department. Asking him for details about his high-security job is like playing 20 questions. "I solve math problems. Often there is a focus to them," he says tersely.

Jacobson also continues to do radio sportscasting, which led to his being asked to be the Orioles scorekeeper. Now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson, Jacobson says, "They don't know me as a mathematician. They know me as a baseball guy."

There really is no pattern to the stories. Some former precocious youth are introverts, whose work is their life, life is their work. Others have varied interests. Many are highly motivated. Some less so. They have pursued a variety of careers.

Of the prodigies interviewed for this story, though, virtually all were thirsty to learn. Like athletes craving exercise, they seemed to need to challenge their brains.

IN HIS OFFICE in the Bloomberg Center for Physics and Astronomy, Julian Stanley is encased in data. Files of published papers on the academic lives of the SMPY participants line his office shelves. He has gone to pains to keep a list of all the students who enrolled at Hopkins at a young age. When asked to recall a particular student, though, Stanley rarely refers to the papers. He has the numbers all in his head.

With amazing recall, he will tell you a former prodigy's SAT scores, how long the student took to complete college, and (to the day) how old the student was at graduation.

Stanley's fixation on statistics can be disconcerting at first. His project appears to be a race or contest. How fast can a student finish college? How smart can someone be?

On closer examination, though, it becomes clear that he is simply as avidly interested in his "data" as any researcher is. He did not push the SMPY students, he says, because he did not need to. "It was like pushing a charging bull."

In the 25 years or so since he launched SMPY, Stanley has toned down his views on acceleration. "I was pretty flamboyant about radical acceleration," he admits. Over the years he's discovered, however, that while "there are some who are well prepared, intellectually, socially, and emotionally, for acceleration, many kids can't handle it. Some kind of acceleration is crucial, but it doesn't have to be grade-skipping. They need to move ahead in certain subjects," but not in all.

"Another danger of starting early is that you may get into the wrong field. If you're good in math and science, you get moved into physics, etc. At each stage, you get moved up. But if you do it too early before you've thought it out, you might settle for a career that you end up not being happy with."

To pursue any form of acceleration, says Stanley, the student must be hungry. "A lot of people have a great deal of mental ability and not a great deal of mental energy. I used to sort of worship I.Q. But you can't major in I.Q. A high I.Q. and 50 cents can buy you a 50-cent cup of coffee. There's a lot to the work ethic."

So what is the best way to foster early intellectual talent? When Joe Bates first came to Stanley's attention more than 25 years ago, says the researcher, there were few options. Fortunately, he says, the variety of resources for the gifted has mushroomed.

In 1980 Stanley launched the Center for Talented Youth (CTY), a residential summer program that today brings roughly 7,000 gifted teens to 16 college campuses nationwide for advanced coursework-- and fun. There's a social component to the program that many participants find just as rewarding as the intellectual challenge. In between courses on algebra and playwriting, the 12-to-16-year-olds take part in talent shows, have dances, and just hang out together. "It's completely unlike anything else that we've experienced," explained one participant. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that we're all equal in this community here. None of us are considered major brains or anything. We're not considered geeks for being smart." CTY now also offers summer programs for children in grades 2 through 6, and since CTY's launch, similar programs have cropped up around the country.

Many people have more mental ability than mental energy, says Stanley: "I used to sort of worship I.Q., but you can't major in I.Q. A high I.Q. and 50 cents can buy you a 50-cent cup of coffee. There's a lot to the work ethic."
Researchers who are continuing Stanley's work with SMPY now recommend that precocious students find ways that allow them to leap ahead academically, while continuing to develop emotionally and socially among their peers. In addition to programs such as CTY, they can take college courses part time; participate in science fairs; take courses via correspondence or via the Internet; or do an internship in a research lab or business. The researchers recommend that students exhaust the options before they consider enrolling in college early or, at least, before moving into a dorm.

Unfortunately, while today there exists a greater variety of resources for the gifted, most are privately operated. At the same time, for a variety of reasons, public school systems have reduced honors courses, says Stanley. He, of course, opposes the cutbacks.

"The fact is that the gifted pay off so handsomely for the country," he says. "The work of the world is done by routine people. I don't want to imply they're not crucial, but garbage collectors don't develop new garbage trucks. Those inventions come from talented people, especially those who have had education to develop their talents. Society develops enormously by capitalizing on their talents."

Melissa Hendricks is the magazine's senior science writer.