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How colleges are finding tomorrow's prodigies

American universities are using online courses to discover gifted students in math, science, and the arts. Meet three phenoms from the far corners of the world.

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'Prodigies' is the cover story project for the Feb. 24 issue of The Christian Science MonitorWeekly magazine.

Ann Hermes/Staff

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Battushig Myanganbayar, a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from Mongolia, asks me, "Have you ever heard of the 'Freshman 15'?" He's referring to the storied 15 pounds students often gain in their first year of college. I tell him I have heard of it.

We are in Flour, a stylish bakery in Central Square in Cambridge, Mass., drinking tea (his jasmine, mine Darjeeling). "I am moving in the opposite direction," he says, grinning at his adjustment to the United States. Not only is he heeding his mother's warnings about pizza, but he is also doubling up on required physical education classes, taking two per semester. Translation: He's spending a lot of time jogging and playing tennis.

That's not all he's doing. There are classes – hard stuff such as differential equations and chemistry – but just months after landing half a world away from his home in Ulan Bator, Battushig is also staying up late working on a new cellphone technology that he believes is patentable. He's ventured to Harvard University, hung out with entrepreneurial types, and even met with a professor to get advice on creating a start-up. "There are a lot of opportunities," he says, taking a tentative nibble on a molasses cookie, a new food for him.

I have to remind myself that Battushig is 17 years old, and brought here by a Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC. As a 15-year-old from a country in which one-third of the people are nomads living in round, white felt tents called gers, he enrolled in the first MOOC offered by MIT – a sophomore-level course on circuits and electronics – and aced it. That, along with an inventive device he built to warn his 10-year-old sister of cars encroaching on her driveway play area, earned him attention from MIT and, last spring, an offer of admission. He now has a single room in Desmond, a German-themed dorm near the tennis courts.

Battushig's journey to MIT from a remote country sandwiched between Russia and China may be exceptional, but it's not unique. Not far away from Desmond, Amol Bhave, an MIT freshman from a small city in central India where pigs and chickens meander the streets, lives in a dorm that looks like a giant LEGO block. He was drawn here by the same MOOC. And University of Pennsylvania freshman Taha Tariq, a talented writer from Lahore, Pakistan, stumbled upon and enrolled in an online poetry course taught by professor Al Filreis. It spurred him to apply to the school, and he is now the first in his family to attend college in the US.

All three are gifted students discovered by the reach of the Internet – and may offer a glimpse into how schools and societies find the prodigies of tomorrow.

Across the country, colleges are experimenting with online learning to see how it might reshape higher education in the future. Most expect it to usher in one of the biggest revolutions since the advent of the chalkboard – eventually.

For now, online classes – MOOCs in particular – represent more of a tantalizing idea than a transformative one. Critics excoriate the free courses for not having done much yet to help solve the high cost of college. Professors fret that MOOCs threaten in-person teaching and the experience of going to school on campus.

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But one overlooked benefit of online learning has been to help universities find a new generation of talented students – and perhaps, along the way, society's next Steve Jobs, Maya Angelou, or Yo-Yo Ma. Battushig, Amol, and Taha used MOOCs to connect them to intellectual communities that have matched their ambition with opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise had.

If innovation in its many forms is the currency of the future, could MOOCs emerge as a tool for finding the unknown geniuses of tomorrow? That's what universities from Harvard to Duke to MIT to the Berklee College of Music in Boston believe. They are rushing to use online courses as a way not just to bring education to vast numbers of people who normally wouldn't have access, but also to use them as a way to conduct a global talent search. It's like "American Idol" for the Einstein set.

Piotr Mitros, chief scientist at edX, the MOOC platform created by MIT and Harvard to dispense learning online, notes that 5 billion people around the world lack access to a decent education. Among them, he says, "are millions who are brilliant and don't have an opportunity to do anything with that." Twenty years ago, he adds, there was no way to tap and teach these students. "Now we have the means to do it."

•    •    •

At age 12, Amol's parents bought him a remote-control car. Unlike most kids, Amol didn't set about racing the toy across the floors of their home.

"He dismantled it immediately," says Manog Bhave, Amol's father, who is an engineer.

Amol then reconfigured the car, a yellow Mercedes-Benz, creating a computer program to allow him to operate the toy with a gaming console. A year earlier, Amol had found his father's book on BASIC programming and absorbed it. By seventh grade, he had mastered other computer programming languages, including C++, Java, and Pearl. "He was thrilled that he could give commands to a computer to perform a certain task," recalls Mr. Bhave.

But for Amol, a skinny, soft-spoken teen with shiny dark hair, life really changed in 2009. That's when cable Internet arrived in his home. Suddenly, he could explore a new world online – and without monopolizing the family's phone line. The choices were delicious.

He discovered YouTube (you can find him now teaching viewers to play guitar and prep for the SATs). He discovered stimulating games. He also discovered MIT's open courseware. He soaked up physics lectures by Walter Lewin (he's since met the famous professor). The real excitement, though, came in spring 2012 when MITx – the forerunner to edX – offered the circuits and electronics course 6.002x. Amol signed right up.

The MOOC, one of the very first, attracted 150,000 students. Amol earned a 97, a near-perfect score. But he was so disappointed when it ended that he persuaded two others who took the online class to create a follow-up course. They combined lectures with handmade video tutorials and tests. The class attracted 1,000 students.

Amol designed and wrote code for the platform, including a tool that could grade quizzes. At the time, Dr. Mitros, an edX cofounder, says they were scrambling to get the platform operating. When he learned of Amol's handiwork, he was so impressed that he hired him to help write code.

"A lot of the technology was quite fancy," Mitros says of the grading tools. "It was not in MOOCs at that time and is not in MOOCs now."

The experience confirmed for Amol the power of online learning. It also made him eager to attend MIT, which surprised people in his community, who had never heard of the school. While India sends 100,000 students a year to study in the US, they typically come from affluent families in the largest cities who arrange for them to prepare at international schools.

Amol, on the other hand, graduated from Joy Senior Secondary School in Jabalpur, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, which sends few abroad for college. Rather, the rigid curriculum aims to help top students pass tests and enter the Indian Institutes of Technology. There, says Amol, "curriculum is fixed and you take these classes and you get a job. I wanted to do more."

As we walk across the MIT campus toward his dorm, Amol mentions missing his mother's dal roti, a stewlike dish with lentils and flatbread. It is 50 degrees, balmy for a New England winter day, but Amol is cold: It is in the 80s back home in his city in India.

He is still getting used to Cambridge. He finds it "weird" that cars stop for pedestrians and odd that sidewalks are uncrowded compared with those in India. He has some homesickness, but has embraced the pleasure of being with people who can talk about artificial intelligence and the nuances of writing computer code. He loves research and is helping to program robots.

"In India, I wouldn't have thought of programming robots because I didn't have resources to do that," he says. "Here you can do whatever you are interested in."

•     •     •

When I meet Taha at the White Dog Cafe in the heart of the University of Pennsylvania campus in Philadelphia, it is apparent that he loves language – and conversation. He is a geyser of ideas, large and small, and offers snippets of insight and self-awareness.

Over smoked salmon artfully arranged on a rectangular plate, he proclaims his passion for author Jodi Picoult ("The judgments, decisions, moral dilemmas, and questions she presents leave me speechless," he says). Later, we visit Hill College House, his dorm, and meet his suitemates on the fourth floor. I learn that he has seen plays around the city, been a guest at a roommate's home on Long Island, and led late-night debates in the communal study space.

Taha is also intrigued by an ongoing conversation he has been having with a street vendor about religion. We sit on a stone bench amid fallen leaves as he describes the moral twists the man's narrative suggests and his plans to write about it, not for any class, but for himself.

Taha is interested in problems of perception and understanding. In Pakistan, he says, a relative and a friend's uncle were both injured by bomb blasts near mosques. "I feel I should be doing something about that," he says, during a Friday evening phone conversation. It's unclear what Taha will make of his future, but he is ambitious, imaginative, and eager to have an impact. It is odd, he says, to realize that just a year ago he had stumbled upon a MOOC and was watching Dr. Filreis online – the same professor he now calls "Al." Filreis is his adviser and teaches the seminar he recently took on representations of the Holocaust in film and literature.

Taha came across Filreis's enormously popular MOOC on modern poetry, known among its community simply as "ModPo," by chance. Google delivered him to the website of Coursera, an education firm that produces online courses, and he browsed, then signed up for the class. Taha says he was drawn in by the lectures – conversations that introduced him to new poets and new ideas.

He was also attracted by the bohemian culture of the Kelly Writers House – a literary salon on the Penn campus that hosts poetry readings, film screenings, lectures, and cultural events. It was founded by a group of students and faculty in 1995 in a spirit of cultural communitarianism. As a high school senior in his native Pakistan at Lahore Grammar School, a network of private schools that prepares students for British-style exams, Taha was struck by what he saw as a relaxed relationship between professors and students in the MOOC and at Kelly Writers House events.

"The videos weren't just lectures or presentations," he says, but "students sitting around with a mug of coffee, discussing the poems. Some of them fumbled, some of them struggled, some of them got interpretations completely wrong, so I didn't feel like someone was imposing their interpretation on me."

Interpretation – not just of poems but of ideas – matters to Taha. As a high school student, he and friends started an intellectual magazine called Pineapple – named for one fruit Pakistan struggles to grow – that aimed to provoke. The first issues include articles on "Shia Genocide"; views of Pakistan from youth in India, Afghanistan, Egypt, and the US; and a contrary look at the Taliban.

"We felt there were a lot of issues people in Pakistan didn't talk about," he says. "We felt the problem of extremism and radicalism was because people wouldn't see things from a different perspective."

When I speak with Filreis, a charismatic bearded professor, he complains that people criticize MOOCs without differentiating between those that are done well and those that are not. He is sitting at a computer and clicks between discussion boards, Facebook posts, and live "office hour" chats led by teaching assistants who discuss poems in the video lectures (the TAs have become ModPo celebrities, too).

Filreis reads comments aloud to demonstrate that users employ different tones in different settings that reflect very human interactions. A user mentions an upcoming chemotherapy session on Facebook. Classmates send supportive wishes. On the discussion board, students eloquently debate the meaning of a poetic image.

"This sounds like real people to me," says Filreis, who notes that there can be bad big campus lectures (he uses more colorful language) and terrific big campus lectures, subpar online classes and terrific ones with intensely engaged students. "I am trying to make a model of how a MOOC can be personal," he says. Filreis is also doing the MOOC, which is filmed at the Kelly Writers House on campus, "because the outreach is fabulous. Poets I care about are being read by thousands and thousands of people."

About 80,000 people have taken ModPo since it launched in fall of 2012, and last year, says Filreis, about 150 students with no other connection to the university made unsolicited donations totaling about $7,000 to the Kelly Writers House.

The MOOC has also become a tool for attracting students such as Taha to Penn, says Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who since 2012 has been in charge of recruiting talented writers. This year, 400 potential students have contacted the school, double the number from last year, which was when Taha reached out to Ms. Josselyn. She says Taha's insights on ModPo discussion boards and his entrepreneurial approach with Pineapple magazine "is honestly something we are really looking for."

•     •     •

Battushig's passion doesn't revolve around iambic pentameter. It centers on integrated circuits – and using the wonders of the Electronics Age to solve problems. I quickly saw that when I first visited him at his home in Ulan Bator, the sprawling capital of Mongolia.

Battushig's sister Tergel and her friends often play on the paved driveway in front of their apartment building, which can be dangerous. Ulan Bator is teeming these days. The discovery of copper, gold, coal, uranium, and other minerals, plus the country's prodigious oil resources, are driving double-digit economic growth. A booming economy, however, has not yielded smart construction. From the driveway where Tergel plays, you can't see cars exit the family's apartment building, and a second apartment complex driveway empties perilously onto the same blacktop.

Enter Battushig and his algebraic mind. When he was taking the circuits and electronics course offered online by MIT, he envisioned a solution: a siren outside the garage that could be wired to a sensor inside. Each time a car exited, the electronic eye would send a signal that triggered the siren, allowing Tergel and her friends to safely get out of the way. For Battushig, who dreams of being a Mongolian Steve Jobs – only nicer – improving people's lives lies at the heart of his ambition. "I want to bring happiness through my projects," he says.

Mongolia is a place in need of imaginative solutions. The country values education, but in a nod to years of Soviet control, instruction "is totally theoretical," says Gita Steiner-Khamsi, professor of education and chair of the Department of International and Transcultural Studies at Columbia University in New York. The educational system is focused on passing exams and earning Olympiad medals. As a result, says Dr. Steiner-Khamsi, Mongolians "are really bad problem solvers."

Yet one development stirring change is Mongolia's commitment to technology. The country may not have real highways or good roads; subways are just the stuff of imagination. But the country has a good IT infrastructure and, as a late adopter, has skipped landline phones and instead gone straight to 3G communications networks. The Internet can be slow, but you can be driving across the steppe (navigating around herds of sheep and horses) and have four bars on your cell.

This has made Battushig and his classmates as fluent with what's online as teens anywhere in the world. It also inspired Enkhmunkh Zurgaanjin, the principal of Sant School in Ulan Bator, from which Battushig graduated last June after completing 11th grade (the highest grade in the Mongolian education system), to invite 20 students in the spring of 2012 to enroll in MIT's circuits and electronics MOOC.

Mr. Zurgaanjin himself is something of a phenom. The 26-year-old graduated from MIT in 2009 – the first from Mongolia to do so – and went on to get a master's degree in education from Stanford University in California. While at MIT, he got a company to donate 10,000 laptops, each loaded with educational software he and others translated into Mongolian and distributed to remote parts of the country, including the Gobi Desert.

Once in charge of the Sant School, he wanted to bring the experience of hands-on lab science to his students. He had taken MIT's online circuits and electronics course as an undergraduate. Even though it was challenging, he thought it would be one way to deliver practical and rigorous instruction to Mongolia's next generation.

"It will encourage students to become confident to study engineering and science in their higher education," Zurgaanjin says one day during a visit in his office, which he shares with his father. (His parents, both teachers, started the Sant School in 1997.) "In Mongolia, we need lots of engineering."

The school doesn't look like much. The four-story concrete structure has a Days Inn vibe, blue letters that spell "SANT SCHOOL" in Cyrillic caps, and no landscaping or playground. Classrooms have chalkboards, not digital whiteboards; long pressboard tables at which students sit; and casement windows strung with white curtains that ripple in the Mongolian wind.

But behind the ordinary exterior is an unusual drive to encourage innovation. When Zurgaanjin invited the students to take the MOOC, he also got a college friend, Tony Kim, a PhD candidate at Stanford and a former MIT teaching assistant, to come to Mongolia to help out. They developed a novel "hybrid" approach to MOOCs – combining online learning with in-class instruction – that has since become widely adopted in the US. Students would watch lectures and take quizzes online, but instead of using software tools for labs, Mr. Kim would guide them using real equipment (he brought three suitcases of electronics with him).

For Battushig, the course was unlike anything he had ever taken before.

"The MIT course was really related to real life, like how antennas work," he says. "In Mongolia, it's very theoretical. A lot of students don't know why they are doing [assignments]."

The course was hard. Of 20 who enrolled, only 10 finished. Yet Battushig just intuitively understood it. He helped classmates by making videos in Mongolian and posting them on YouTube to explain concepts and problem sets. He became one of only 340 people in the world to earn a perfect score. Kim, a teaching assistant for similar courses, notes that if Battushig had been enrolled at MIT, even at 15 years old he would have been a standout. "My expectation is that this course for most high school students would be a jarring experience," says Kim. "What I found is Battushig just ... got it."

Zurgaanjin, convinced of the merits of the hybrid approach, is building an addition to the school that will allow students to combine hands-on experiments with edX courses in electronics, biology, and computer science. (In the meantime, his high school students are taking the hybrid edX courses with professors at the National University of Mongolia.)

When I talk with Battushig over tea at Flour, our conversation is a mix of the mundane and the extraordinary. He describes an idea for attacking cancer, shares a personal philosophy for surviving thousands of miles from home, and wonders why American children are allowed to use calculators for math ("It is killing their math intuition," he says). He is thoughtful and generous. He tells about helping another freshman struggling with physics. "He says he doesn't know anything about physics," says Battushig. "I say, 'No! When we are born, we already know about physics. It is a natural phenomenon and humans are part of nature.' "

Like Amol and Taha, Battushig is intellectually unselfish. All three, raised in developing countries with challenges foreign to Americans, are a fount of novel ideas and a reminder that brilliance is not bound by borders.

What strikes you about a place like Mongolia is how naturally gers coexist with online courses, and how technology is penetrating places that seem untouchable. While in Ulan Bator, I met Battushig's physics Olympiad coach, Ulam-Orgikh Dugar, a sweet-faced man wearing a striped, button-down shirt. He is a professor of theoretical physics at the National University of Mongolia. Raised in a ger with five siblings tending sheep, Dr. Dugar has a daughter who is now a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He says his daughter, a veteran of online classes, has spurred him to use TED Talks, global ideas conferences streamed online, and open courseware from American physicists to teach both physics and English to his students. "It is a revolution in education," he says of online content.

Battushig is smart, says Dugar, but there are others, too. How many people with brains and ambition live in quiet pockets of the globe? "If they can learn English," says Dugar, "there will be many, many Battushigs."

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