Sunday, December 25, 2005

Another home-schooler has hit the news: 16-year-old Michael Viscardi recently won the $100,000 prize from the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

In a recent interview, the San Diego teen says he has been home-schooling with his mother, Eunjee, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience, since fifth grade.

He says home-schooling enabled him to study math at higher levels than he could at the prestigious St. Mark’s School in Plano, Texas. He continued home-schooling during his family’s two-year stay in Tokyo when his father, Anthony, was transferred there for his job as a software engineer for Texas Instruments.

Upon their relocation to San Diego, in addition to his home studies, at age 13 Michael began taking calculus at the University of California at San Diego. He is doing graduate-level courses and research, which led to his winning project, “On the Solution of the Dirichlet Problem With Rational Boundary Data,” mentored by professor Peter Ebenfelt of UCSD’s mathematics department.

A book written by Mr. Ebenfelt and his co-authors, M. Salah Baouendi and Linda Rothschild stimulated Michael’s ambition to delve deeply into theoretical math.

Michael’s enthusiasm for mathematics led him to explore and prove five new theorems. The applications of his research range from dealing with the reaction of metal to heat during the manufacture of light rails to the effect of entering the atmosphere on the space shuttle to the design of airplane wings.

The teen’s other love is music — joining Albert Einstein and other great mathematicians and theoreticians. Michael serves as concertmaster of the San Diego Youth Symphony and San Diego Youth Symphony Philharmonia as well as first violinist of the San Diego Youth Symphony String Quartet. He is preparing to solo on violin in Anton Dvorak’s Symphony No. 8 and on piano in Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” in a few months. He composes music, and he has studied conducting for three years.

In his home-schooling, Michael takes a full range of subjects: U.S. government, Russian literature, electronics, history, physics and biology are all interesting to him. He recently scored a perfect 2400 on the new three-section SATs. He is applying to Harvard for early admission because that would enable him to study jointly at the New England Conservatory of Music for a special program that accepts just six students per year.

Besides the Japanese language training he received — he still can understand and write some 100 kanji characters — he enjoyed traveling to Nice, France, and hosting children from Croatia and other parts of Europe during exchange programs with other orchestras.

The Siemens Westinghouse Competition seeks to encourage youth development in science and math by offering college scholarship money for superior original work in one of several fields. The entrants — some 1,684 this year — vie for 10 scholarship awards ranging from $10,000 to $100,000. The judges are drawn from top universities in the nation.

Michael cites his parents’ approach as the foundation for his love of math.

“They always encouraged me to think about why something works, even with the simplest concepts like averages or fractions and decimals. We’d go back and forth, discussing these things, since second grade. I didn’t have to memorize much because when you understand it, you can derive just about anything. It’s nice to know what the formulas are, but if you know why they work, it becomes interesting and elegant and beautiful.”

The quest for academic challenge, the desire for family cohesiveness and the desire for more freedom in educational choices are just a few of the reasons families like the Viscardis are choosing to home-school. All the indicators point to this being a more effective way to educate.

The decision to home-school gave Michael the chance to develop both math and music at high levels of proficiency, giving him incredible personal and academic opportunities. One can only hope that more families will consider the benefits of home education a worthy investment.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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