Math whiz eases onto the fast track

Severn 15-year-old to be junior at UMBC in fall

June 08, 2008|By Susan Gvozdas | Susan Gvozdas,Special to The Sun

Benjamin Harris is like most 15-year-olds - He has his first summer job, and he is counting the days until he can get his learner's permit - but for one thing. Instead of starting his junior year in high school this fall, he will be a junior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

The Severn teenager graduated summa cum laude May 29 with an associate's degree from Anne Arundel Community College and won a $5,000 scholarship to UMBC.

No matter that he is too young, according to the state of Maryland, to take the General Educational Development (GED) test and get a high school diploma He is not sure that he even wants to bother when he turns 16 in September and becomes eligible.

"Now that I've got my associate's degree, it just seems silly," Benjamin said.

Benjamin is unusual, but not unique. He was one of 38 students younger than 16 enrolled at the college last fall, said admissions director Thomas McGinn. Few of those students earn associate's degrees there, he said.

Benjamin scored 1,300 out of a possible 1,600 on his SAT - including a nearly perfect math score - when he was 12 years old. He took Calculus 1 when he was 13 and finished Calculus 3 last fall.

His parents, Dan and Tamara Harris, both mathematicians for the U.S. Department of Defense, said their son showed a natural talent for math as early as first grade at Columbia Academy, a private school in Howard County.

"Everyone thought we were coaching him in math," Dan Harris said.

Harris said his son seemed to be bored doing his homework, so he and his wife approached the principal about having Benjamin take more advanced math classes.

At first, it was difficult being the youngest in math. Some children bullied him, Benjamin said. But it got easier as he and the other students matured and they got used to his presence.

But by the time he entered seventh grade in 2005, Benjamin had become bored again. His parents wanted to home-school him, a prospect he rejected until they promised that he could stay in touch with all of his friends.

Benjamin started taking computer science classes at Anne Arundel Community College and did distance-learning through the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. During the next three years, Benjamin leaped seven grades.

Benjamin took most of his classes online - he and his parents thought it would be awkward to take them with older students - but he took courses the past two semesters at the Arundel Mills campus. It became a little easier to blend in once he hit his growth spurt a year ago. Now he stands 6 feet tall and looks the part of a college freshman.

As fast as Benjamin wanted to go, there were hurdles he couldn't clear. The college barred him from noncredit courses, some of which are subsidized by state and county funds for students older than 16. He also couldn't take some physical education courses because of liability issues.

Still, Benjamin earned a 3.9 grade-point average with all A's except one in his last semester. He earned a B in English. Writing isn't his strong suit, he acknowledged.

But in math, he is exceptional, said Charles Davis, his math professor.

Benjamin's mother is a former student of Davis' and was the school's valedictorian in 1985.

"They're just both brilliant and nice," he said.

In the online Calculus 2 and Calculus 3 courses that Benjamin took from Davis, students were given eight days to take his tests. Most students waited until the last day to fill them out. Benjamin always took the tests the first day "because he already learned everything," said Davis.

Benjamin zipped through his computer programming courses too, said Richard Seabrook, his computer science professor. Benjamin liked to experiment by cobbling together several programs just to see if they worked.

"He'd be inclined to try stuff other kids wouldn't," Seabrook said.

He was thrilled when Benjamin volunteered to tutor Unix programming students last fall. Most of his top students never made the time, he said.

Benjamin is a peer tutor in the math lab after getting a work permit. On Wednesday, he walked Eileen Catte through several word problems she had gotten wrong on her algebra homework. He suggested approaching problems from a different direction.

"Do you know what the quadratic equation is?" Benjamin asked. She stared back blankly.

"Don't worry about it. You'll learn about it later," he said.

Catte seemed unbothered by his age. "He was great," she said, as she rushed off to class.

As he waited for his next client, Benjamin talked about majoring in computer science at UMBC. He recently discovered an affinity for physics, but he's not sure where that interest would take him.

After he earns a bachelor's degree, he wants to get a job before pursuing a graduate degree, maybe at a college farther from home. For now, his parents have decided UMBC's nearby campus would be best.

"He's still 15," Dan Harris said. "We want to keep an eye on him."

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