Stanford University

News Service



CONTACT: Stanford University News Service (650) 723-2558

Computers help talented youth learn faster at home than in school

STANFORD -- Children as young as 5 who find math class too easy can take advanced courses from Stanford without leaving their home computers.

With a relatively inexpensive personal computer equipped with a CD- ROM drive, students in Hawaii or Montana can see the blackboard diagrams of Stanford physics Professor Mason Yearian on their screens and hear his recorded voice over headphones.

Approximately 800 students from more than 35 states, Guatemala and Guam are enrolled this fall in elementary mathematics, secondary mathematics or one of the post-secondary mathematics or physics courses offered by Stanford's Education Program for Gifted Youth, founded by Patrick Suppes, Stanford professor emeritus of philosophy.

The Stanford program is the first in the country to offer computer- based courses designed to replace the entire traditional K-12 mathematics sequence. It allows students to remain in their grade level but do advanced work year-round.

It also is the first to offer computer-based courses in university- level mathematics and physics to high school students.

On Oct. 1, the program broadened its outreach when it joined with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a program that identifies talented youth and offers them accelerated summer programs.

"One of the big thrusts of the modern technology will be to bring a lot more instruction into the home," Suppes says. This is partly because the technology is becoming less expensive and partly because of dissatisfaction with large, centralized school systems that do not treat students as individuals with different needs and talents, he said. Suppes is careful to point out, however, that he doesn't advocate replacing physical schools altogether with computerized home instruction.

"We aren't talking about doing all the teaching at home because the social aspects of education are important and need an institutional setting," he said. "I also think it will be quite a while before we have computers smart enough to offer courses without an instructor available somewhere."

The Stanford program has been around on an experimental basis since 1990 but can be expected to grow more rapidly now that it has teamed up with Johns Hopkins to offer distance learning as a year-round alternative to, or an extension of, Johns Hopkins' 11 summer residential programs for 6,000 talented children and teenagers. The Stanford program is also expanding to offer college-level courses more advanced than the typical "advanced placement" courses taught in high schools.

In the Stanford program, a student's homework in math or physics is mainly corrected by a program on his or her home computer. The computer then generates a new set of exercises based on the student's progress. The computer can check every step of a student's solution to problems when that is desirable.

A human tutor, on the Stanford campus, tracks students' progress and sends monthly reports to the students and parents. The tutor is available by e-mail and phone to answer questions or to give an oral test when necessary. Programmers also are available to help with any computer bugs, which often exist in the newest courses or when substantial upgrades are made.

The cost averages about $30 per week per course, comparable to tutoring rates in most areas of the country. Students are admitted based on results of test scores, with admission standards varying with the age of the student. Arrangements for substituting the courses for in- school work vary with local school districts.

The concept of distance learning for gifted kindergarten students through 12th graders fits within the framework of the university of the future as envisioned by Stanford President Gerhard Casper. In an address to faculty last May, Casper predicted that students and parents will be making different educational "tradeoffs" as a result of distance learning opportunities. He predicted that the trend will shorten the course of studies pursued by university students while they are physically on campus and said that "the line between high school and college will blur perhaps even more than the one between an advanced degree and continuing education. Learning will become less concentrated in time because there will be less need to take advantage of one's presence in a physical space."

Education paced to talent

In 1985, Suppes and collaborators created the first advanced placement course in calculus that was entirely computer based. He reasoned that schools that could not afford to hire a teacher for five or six advanced students might be able to afford a few $10,000 multimedia computers. By 1991, he successfully transported the course to a personal computer platform costing less than $3,000. That computer now sells in the range of $1,200, making it possible to move accelerated education to the home.

Harnessing the computer for educating the most able youth has been Suppes' goal since he began experimenting with computerized education in the 1960s. Before computers were available, he researched techniques for educating gifted students and found that providing them with a self-paced curriculum, as well as a structure to keep them from procrastinating, often led within a year to a two-grade-level difference in materials mastered.

Suppes co-founded an educational software company in 1967 (Computer Curriculum Corp.) to provide software to schools. He later sold the company but remained frustrated by the fact that even with some computer assistance, three-quarters of American high schools did not offer advanced placement calculus, and nine out of 10 did not offer the equivalent of half of college freshman physics.

American schools, with their emphasis on equal educational opportunity for all, still have difficulty accepting that people learn at vastly different rates and that disciplined training counts in intellectual areas as well as in athletics or music, he said. "The difference between a world-class athlete like Michael Jordan and a very good athlete is not just talent but thousands of hours of practice. Properly trained intellectual skills lead naturally to differences of roughly the same magnitude as in music and sports."

While the proportion of high schools offering advanced placement opportunities has increased in recent years, schools still have limited offerings. To get truly advanced work year-round, the very gifted have had to leave behind their chronological peer group, and often their families, to attend a university. The Education Program for Gifted Youth has an alternative solution for these students: stay in school with their peer group and families while taking courses beyond the advanced placement level in math and physics.

"What the best high school student gets today in high school is not very much different from what I got in the 1930s," Suppes said recently during an interview in his campus office, "and, my god, the amount of new knowledge since then is just overwhelming. We need to get in there and change high school education for those who are able."

Parent, student views

Vicki Schultz of Mountain View had no intention of bringing school into her home last year, but that is what happened when her eldest child proved unhappy in kindergarten.

Schultz learned that her daughter was especially talented in some areas. Talking with school officials in several Bay Area public school districts and private schools, she found that virtually none within reasonable commuting distance offered advanced coursework to young children. The prevailing philosophy of many school districts, she said, was summed up by one teacher who told her: "We look at the whole child. If your daughter is way ahead in math, we'll work on her social skills." What that meant to Schultz, she said, was that "my daughter doesn't get to learn any math for an entire year and sits through math work which is not at her level."

The option Schultz and her husband chose was home schooling, including the computer-based elementary mathematics course from Stanford. "It was a life saver for us, because the course takes responsibility for telling the parent how you learn math and in what order," she said. "It has different strands, including geometry. If she slows down in something, they give her more examples, and so she doesn't progress until she has mastered it." In her kindergarten year, Schultz's daughter completed half of the third grade curriculum in mathematics and thought it was fun, Schultz said.

For Jihye Whang, the advanced placement calculus and physics she took from Stanford via computer were more hard work than fun. "There were a lot of bugs in the software the first year, and it was the first time I had really been challenged in math," said Whang, now a freshman with sophomore standing at MIT.

Whang said she wished she would have had the opportunity to start the advanced work in elementary school, but she added a caution to parents: "A lot of parents are trying to get their kids into the best college possible, and they think that starting them in calculus in elementary school will do it. I assume it helps, but nowadays, colleges are looking for well- roundedness."

But Whang added that the computer courses indirectly have provided her with "well-roundedness." By taking them in the summer, she freed up her senior year of high school to develop her skills as a violin player in the school symphony, to participate in sports and to do community service.

The computer courses, she added, also made her realize the value of face-to-face communication with teachers. "I definitely missed the human contact," she said. Not having a teacher looking over her shoulder forced her to spend hours alone struggling for an answer. "My Dad is a firm believer in struggle. I know he knew the answer, but he wouldn't even give me a hint." (Her father is Seungjin Whang, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.)

Whang's parents considered sending her to college early, she said, but she didn't want to leave her friends and miss the social side of high school. "They also didn't think I was mature enough." Now, she said, she has the choic e of graduating early and saving her parents $30,000 in college expenses or getting a double major in engineering and biology.

Schultz also worries that her daughter is missing the social side of school. She recently organized a support group for the Northern California parents of elementary school students in the Education Program for Gifted Youth. In addition to parent meetings and communication by electronic mail, the group organized field trips for their children to places such as the Stanford Robotics Lab and Intel Corp.'s computer museum.

Junior high bottleneck

If high schools slow the brightest students down, junior high schools are worse, Suppes said. Although he likes to see able students begin working faster by the third or fourth grade, he said it is in middle school that they are most likely to tread water. Virtually no schools for that age group offer the courses that qualify a student to take the College Board's Advanced Placement exams in calculus or physics.

Raymond Ravaglia, a graduate student who is director of development for the Education Program for Gifted Youth, said some middle school students take summer enrichment courses but "if you take a student entering the eighth grade and they finish all of beginning algebra in three weeks of summer school, what happens when they go back to school in the fall? We have something these students can do throughout the year, starting whenever they want."

Stanford's program is geared toward offering the mathematics and science content given in the world's top high schools, he said, including those specializing in mathematics and science. To take full advantage of it, students should complete intermediate algebra and pre-calculus by the end of the seventh grade and take a full year of calculus in the eighth. Currently, it's possible to compile 30 quarter units of college credit through the program, which is recognized by most colleges if the students take the College Board's Advanced Placement exams.

Courses in physics include mechanics, electricity/magnetism, optics, thermodynamics and heat, and introduction to modern physics. (The program also offers coursework that prepares students to take the Advanced Placement exam in English language and composition, but no more course development is planned in this area because of limits on resources, Suppes said.) To expand to the next level of mathematics and physics, the Stanford researchers are focusing on developing a more sophisticated derivation system for problems and proof system for theorems, he said.

In mathematics "we would like to have a sequence that starts in grade one and goes right through the undergraduate courses at Stanford," he said. "Not every specialized Stanford course but the equivalent of a final honors sequence in ordinary partial and differential equations here. Absolutely no secondary students have that material now."

Cost, equity issues

While the program demonstrates "the great range of possibilities for a school curriculum," Suppes said, the cost of providing such courses is currently a limiting factor in their reach.

"You can get into these courses for $1,000 to $1,200 [of computer equipment], which for a family without resources is a sum you really think about," Suppes said. "The tuition is also something many would need help with. About 20 percent of those enrolled are receiving some assistance."

Having to pay tuition has one advantage, according to Eric Cope, the coordinator for tutoring of middle school and high school students taking mathematics courses. "Tuition is the best incentive we've found yet to get students to finish their work," Cope said. When parents get the notice that their child is falling behind and may have to pay another quarter's worth of tuition to complete the course, Cope said, homework suddenly gets completed quickly.

The courses, he and others say, are not for all students. Some who have been pushed more by their parents' desires than by their own interests have not done well in them. While computer-based courses could be effectively designed to teach people with average or below average interest in a given subject, that was not the goal of this program, Suppes said. "EPGY, with its limited resources, was created to focus on the gifted, who can be regarded as a neglected population in today's schools."

More applicants will likely seek financial assistance when Stanford begins its cooperation with Johns Hopkins, which has an extensive outreach program into the nation's schools. For a decade and a half, the Baltimore-based center has worked nationally with schools to identify youth who could benefit from advanced work during the summer months. This past summer the program enrolled 6,000 students from second to 11th grade in six-week-long residential programs at 11 sites.

Hopkins has run a successful program for talented students in a poor neighborhood of Brooklyn, but it doesn't have the financial support to provide full scholarships to all needy applicants, said Luciano Corazza, director of academic programs for the Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. The economic issues, he said, extend beyond tuition to a place to study in the home and, in the case of the Stanford program, a computer.

On the other hand, Suppes and Ravaglia point out that the cost of computers is declining, and schools with five or six students to serve could use the technology far less expensively than hiring a teacher for a small class. (The Stanford EPGY CD-ROM courses are also used in some schools by teachers as a tool for helping them individualize instruction.) Suppes and Ravaglia consider gifted students in sparsely populated regions of the country one of their important clienteles.

Julie Montgomery, who is the K-8 tutor/coordinator said that "e-mail is a wonderful way of communicating with students because it increases the teachers' efficiency hundreds of percent." Montgomery, with the aid of computers, tutors 270 students, compared to the 150 to 180 that high school teachers typically teach.

Early college admission, credit

Another looming issue is how to give credit for courses beyond the reach of the College Board's existing Advanced Placement program. AP test results are accepted by colleges and universities as evidence of post- secondary accomplishment. To date, students in the Education Program for Gifted Youth have taken 92 of the College Board's Advanced Placement exams. All received a passing score.

"To make substantial numbers of courses beyond AP available, the students need to get academic credit," Suppes said.

"The two things we know about students really working on something hard is that they need a structure [in which] to do it and they need accreditation. Accreditation is an important issue, and I think we have a good chance of getting it through the Stanford Faculty Senate on an experimental basis."

The senate's Committee on Academic Achievement and Appraisal last spring recommended an experiment that would allow students who eventually matriculate here to earn Stanford credit for courses beyond the advanced placement program. The university's mathematics and physics departments are involved in certifying that the content and teaching quality of the courses match the department's own advanced undergraduate offerings, said Mason Yearian, the chair of the committee last year and a physics professor who has helped develop the advanced computerized courses in physics. The proposal, he said, will soon go to the senate's steering committee and is likely to be adopted this fall on a three-year trial basis.

Faculty in mathematics and physics, Yearian said, have been "a little upset" in recent years that they do not seem to be drawing as many extremely gifted students in their areas of expertise as Harvard, and they hope the computer course contact and credit offer from Stanford will draw a handful more such students to Stanford each year.

Added Suppes: "For the nation as a whole we hope the benefit will be more students involved in serious learning of math and physics, including many who might have never studied these subjects at all because they spent their time looking out the window in classes where they were not learning much."



This is an archived release.

This release is not available in any other form. Images mentioned in this release are not available online.
Stanford News Service has an extensive library of images, some of which may be available to you online. Direct your request by EMail to

© Stanford University. All Rights Reserved. Stanford, CA 94305. (650) 723-2300. Terms of Use | Copyright Complaints