It goes without saying that many of our world’s most famous scientists and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) pioneers were home educated back when homeschooling was more common. These include great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell, Ernst Mach, Pierre Curie, Mary Blackwell, Clara Barton, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Edison (who only lasted three months in conventional school and was home educated by his mother from then on).
However, many of our greatest modern science, technology, engineering and mathematics contributors have also emerged from the homeschool community. Many 20th century and 21st century STEM leaders were homeschooled for at least a significant part of their childhoods.
Here is a round-up of 25 modern science, technology, engineering and mathematics leaders who were homeschooled:
- Grant Colfax (1965- ) is the Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy. He is the President’s lead advisor on domestic HIV/AIDS and is responsible for overseeing implementation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and guiding the Administration’s HIV/AIDS policies across Federal agencies. Dr. Colfax is the eldest of the four sons homeschooled while building the family homestead and goat farm with their parents, David and Micki Colfax. The Colfaxes wrote about their homeschooling experiences in the books “Homeschooling for Excellence” and “Hard Times in Paradise.” They did not follow a “school at home” approach and once commented that months went by without books being opened (his parents reported that young Grant was nine before he even learned to read). Dr. Colfax graduated from Harvard Medical School and previously worked as the Director of the HIV Prevention Section in the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Upon appointing Dr. Grant to his current position, President Obama said, “Grant Colfax will lead my Administration’s continued progress in providing care and treatment to people living with HIV/AIDS. Grant’s expertise will be key as we continue to face serious challenges and take bold steps to meet them. I look forward to his leadership in the months and years to come.”
- Francis Collins (1950- )is the current Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). He is also famous for his leadership of the Human Genome Project. He has received the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of Science. He founded and served as president of the BioLogos Foundation, which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Dr. Collins was homeschooled until sixth grade.
- Erik Demaine (1981- ) was named “one of the most brilliant scientists in America” in 2003 by Popular Science magazine. The MIT professor of computer science is considered a rising star in the area of theoretical computer science, specifically computational geometry, data structures and algorithms. The Canadian was homeschooled until he entered Dalhousie University at twelve. He completed his bachelor’s degree at age fourteen and completed his PhD by age twenty. He joined the MIT faculty in 2001 at age 20, reportedly the youngest professor in the history of the the university. In 2003, Dr. Demaine became one of the youngest people ever selected for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called “the genius grant.” He has been recognized with many other grants and awards, and his mathematical origami artwork (created in collaboration with his father) is part of the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection. It is worth noting that Demaine was raised by his father, a glassblower and silversmith, who had only a high school education. You can read about his unconventional homeschool (or even “roadschool”) education here and here and you can visit his fascinating website here.
- John Linsley (1925-2002) was an internationally recognized astrophysicist who was nominated for the Nobel Physics Prize in 1980 for his work studying cosmic rays and who won the Premio Internazionale San Valentino d’Oro in astrophysics in 1982. He is best known for being the first to detect an air shower created by a primary particle with an energy of 1020 eV. Dr. Linsley’s observations suggested that not all cosmic rays are confined within the galaxy and showed the first evidence of a flattening of the cosmic ray spectrum at energies above 1018 eV. Dr. Linsley was homeschooled by his mother for most of his childhood.
- Philip Streich (1991-2012) had already won the prestigious Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award, been honored by Discover magazine as one of the Discover 50 “Best Brains in Science,” been named a Davidson Fellow Laureate and had co-founded a nanotechnology company by the time he entered Harvard as a self-made multimillionaire in his teens. Streich, who was homeschooled from 7th grade on, was the youngest and first non-faculty member to be named a University of Wisconsin System “Innovative Scholar of the Year.” His work was published in magazines such as Science and Advanced Materials. The company he cofounded, Graphene Solutions, was featured in Business Week and won the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan top award. As an Intel Science Talent Search finalist, Streich was elected by the other finalists to win the Glenn T. Seaborg Award for scientific communication and the Creativity Foundation’s Legacy Medal for his exceptional creative promise as a scientist and entrepreneur. Streich’s research on carbon nanotubes and their thermodynamic solubility showed promise in finding the key to using nanoparticles in revolutionary applications. He already held numerous patents for his discoveries at the time of his death at only age 21. The Harvard Crimson called him, “an enthusiastic entrepreneur, a scientific prodigy, a political activist, a record producer, and a grandiose party host.”
- Margaret Mead (1901–1978) was one of America’s most famous and influential cultural anthropologists. In her early years, her family moved frequently and her education alternated between homeschooling and traditional schools. Dr. Mead focused her research on problems of child rearing, personality and culture. She served as executive secretary of the National Research Council’s Committee on Food Habits, curator of ethnology at the American Museum of Natural History, president of the American Anthropological Association, president and chair of the executive committee of the board of directors in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as well as working as a professor and prolific author. She was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Carter.
- Samuel Chao Chung Ting (1936- ) is an American physicist who received the Nobel Prize in 1976 for discovering the subatomic J/ψ particle. Ting was born in Michigan, where his parents met and married as graduate students at the University of Michigan. His parents returned to China two months after his birth and due to the Japanese invasion in China he was mostly home-schooled by his parents. Dr. Ting is the principal investigator for the international $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment which was installed on the International Space Station in 2011 and a professor at MIT. He is a member of the United States National Academy of Sciences, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and an academician of Taiwan’s Academia Sinica.
- Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) was a computer programmer, writer, political organizer and Internet activist. Starting at age fourteen, he helped develop the web feed format RSS, Creative Commons, and Reddit, among other contributions. He helped launch the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and was a research fellow at Harvard University’s Safra Research Lab on Institutional Corruption. He founded the online group Demand Progress, known for its campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act. Swartz unschooled himself after ninth grade.
- Reid W. Barton (1983- ) is one of the most successful performers in the International Science Olympiads. Barton was homeschooled starting in third grade, and attended classes at Tufts University in chemistry, physics, Swedish, Finnish, French and Chinese in fifth and sixth grade. In eighth grade, he worked part-time with MIT computer scientist Charles E. Leiserson on CilkChess, a computer chess program. He worked at Akamai Technologies to build one of the earliest video performance measurement systems that have since become a standard in industry. Barton won two gold medals at the International Olympiad in Informatics and won the Morgan Prize for his work on packing densities. Barton recently earned his Ph.D in Math at Harvard.
- Fred Terman (1900-1982) is widely considered to be “the father of Silicon Valley.” His father, Lewis Terman, (a Stanford scientist who was best known for developing the Stanford-Binet IQ test) educated him at home until age nine. Terman had graduated from Stanford by age twenty. During World War II, Terman directed a staff of more than 850 at Harvard’s Radio Research Laboratory, an organization charged with creating Allied jammers to block enemy radar, tunable receivers to detect radar signals and aluminum strips to produce spurious reflections on enemy radar receivers. Terman was a founding member of the National Academy of Engineering and was awarded the IRE Medal of Honor for “his many contributions to the radio and electronic industry as teacher, author, scientist and administrator.” Terman’s students at Stanford included Oswald Garrison Villard, Jr., William Hewlett and David Packard, whom he encouraged to form their own companies. He personally invested in many of them, resulting in firms such as Litton Industries and Hewlett-Packard.
- Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) was an Austrian physicist who was very influential in the field of quantum theory. Schrödinger proposed an original interpretation of the physical meaning of the wave function and in subsequent years repeatedly criticized the conventional Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (once using the now-famous paradox of Schrödinger’s cat). He was the author of many works in various fields of physics, specifically statistical mechanics and thermodynamics, physics of dielectrics, color theory, electrodynamics, general relativity, and cosmology. Schrödinger won many awards, including the Nobel Prize for Physics and the Max Planck Medal. He was homeschooled until age ten.
- Jacob Barnett (1998- ) is a mathematician and astrophysicist who, while still a teenager, expanded on Einstein’s theory of relativity and became an orator of Physics classes at Indiana University. Diagnosed with autism as a young child, he started out in public school in special education classes. His parents pulled him out and chose to let him follow his interests in math and science instead. He began taking college classes at age 8, taught himself all high school math in 2 weeks at age 10, began work on his Master’s at 13, and was accepted to the Perimeter Institute at 15. He has been featured in the TEDxTeen talk “Forget What You Know” and he has his own You-Tube channel where he explains concepts like quantum mechanics, scientific notation, calculus and linear algebra for viewers of all ages. He is the world’s youngest astrophysics researcher and has been tipped for a Nobel Prize for his work.
- Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010), the Yale mathematics professor known as the “father of fractals” and the person who coined the term, was taught at home by his uncle in his early years. After his family fled Warsaw, he was educated in and out of French schools and by another uncle and family friends, who helped him graduate on time despite what he described as “a peculiar education.” The New York Times wrote of Mandelbrot: “Over nearly seven decades, working with dozens of scientists, Dr. Mandelbrot contributed to the fields of geology, medicine, cosmology and engineering. He used the geometry of fractals to explain how galaxies cluster, how wheat prices change over time and how mammalian brains fold as they grow, among other phenomena.” His awards include the Wolf Prize for Physics, the Lewis Fry Richardson Prize of the European Geophysical Society, the Japan Prize, and the Einstein Lectureship of the American Mathematical Society. The asteroid 27500 Mandelbrot was named in his honor, he’s the subject of a Jonathan Coulton song (the lyrics of which he good-naturedly autographed) and he was made a Knight in the French Legion of Honour. Lebanese author and professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb said that Mandelbrot “had perhaps more cumulative influence than any other single scientist in history, with the only close second, Isaac Newton.”
- George Washington Carver (1864–1943) was a leading African American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor in the South after the Civil War. Carver was born into slavery and raised and educated by German immigrants Moses and Susan Carver. He left their home when he was eleven years old and later worked his own way through college at Iowa State, where he also earned a Master’s degree. Dr. Carver researched and promoted alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes, which also aided nutrition for farm families. He developed and promoted about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. He became the head the Tuskegee Institute’s Agriculture Department, where he taught for 47 years, developing the department into a strong research center. He taught methods of crop rotation, introduced several alternative cash crops for farmers that would also improve the soil of areas heavily cultivated in cotton, initiated research into crop products (chemurgy), and taught generations of black students farming techniques for self-sufficiency. He received numerous honors for his work, including the Spingarn Medal of the NAACP, induction into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans and membership into the Royal Society of Arts in England.
- Soichiro Honda (1906-1991) was a Japanese engineer and industrialist who established the Honda corporation, a multinational automobile and motorcycle manufacturer. Honda spent his early childhood helping his father, a blacksmith, with his bicycle repair business. He was not interested in traditional education and developed a fake family seal to stamp his graded reports instead of showing them to his parents. He left home at age 15 to start work as a car mechanic in Tokyo. In 1937, he founded Tōkai Seiki to produce piston rings for Toyota. After a bomber attack destroyed Tōkai Seiki’s Yamashita plant during World War II and his Itawa plant collapsed in the 1945 Mikawa earthquake, Honda sold the salvageable remains of the company to Toyota and used the proceeds to found the Honda Technical Research Institute. He created motorized bicycles and then motorcycles, later branching out into automobiles. His company is now a billion-dollar multinational corporation.
- Paul Erdős (1913–1996) has been called the world’s greatest problem poser and solver. He collaborated with over 500 mathematicians and published around 1,525 math papers, making him one of the most prolific publishers of papers in mathematical history. The Hungarian-born mathematician worked with hundreds of collaborators pursuing problems in combinatorics, graph theory, number theory, classical analysis, approximation theory, set theory and probability theory. He developed an elementary proof for some of the most challenging math problems, including the the Prime Number Theorem and Bertrand’s conjecture that there was always at least one prime between n and 2n for n > 2. He was homeschooled by his parents, who were both mathemeticians, for much of his childhood.
- Bertrand Arthur William Russell (1872– 1970) was a British nobleman, logician, philosopher, mathematician, historian and social critic who is considered one of the founders of analytic philosophy. Following the death of his parents when he was very young, he was raised by his grandmother and educated at home by tutors. His work has had a considerable influence on logic, mathematics, set theory, linguistics, artificial intelligence, cognitive science, computer science and philosophy, especially philosophy of language, epistemology and metaphysics. A prominent anti-war activist, he campaigned against Hitler, World War I, Stalin, nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, among other causes. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature “in recognition of his varied and significant writings in which he champions humanitarian ideals and freedom of thought.”
- Ruth Elke Lawrence-Naimark (1971- ) is an Associate Professor of mathematics at the Einstein Institute of Mathematics, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a researcher in knot theory and algebraic topology. She was born in England, where her parents were computer consultants. When she was five, her father gave up his job so that he could educate her at home. At the age of nine, she gained an O-level in mathematics and achieved a Grade A at A-level Pure Mathematics. She graduated from the University of Oxford at age thirteen, then earned a second degree in physics and went on to earn a PhD in mathematics at Oxford at the age of 17. Her first academic post was at Harvard University, where she became a Junior Fellow at the age of 19. Dr. Lawrence-Naimark’s 1990 paper, “Homological representations of the Hecke algebra,” published in Communications in Mathematical Physics, introduced certain novel linear representations of the braid group known as Lawrence–Krammer representation.
- Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley (1865–1931) is one of the first known photographers of snowflakes, and certainly the best. Born on a family farm in Vermont, he was homeschooled by his mother, a former teacher, who also gave him his first microscope at age fifteen and then his first camera at seventeen. After two years of trial and error, he made the world’s first photomicrograph of a snow crystal at age nineteen. He published 49 popular and 11 technical articles about snow crystals, frost, dew and raindrops, including the entry on “snow” in the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. He was elected a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society in 1920. “Snow Crystals,” a book of his snow crystals images, was published in 1931.
- Bill Lear (1902-1978) is best known for founding the Lear Corporation. He also invented the B-battery eliminator and the 8-track cartridge. He was kicked out of high school for “showing up his teachers,” after which he spent time re-building a Model-T car with his father, traveling the country, running and repairing rotary typesetting and printing machines and serving in the navy. He eventually decided to return to complete his high school education and was on track to complete all four years in one when he was expelled again for “showing up his teachers.” He was self-taught and worked as an engineer for companies such as Magnavox and Universal Battery. Lear eventually started his own company, Radio Coil and Wire Corporation, out of the basement of his mother’s old house, which he later traded for stock in another company. He went on to invent the 8-track casette, which enjoyed great commercial success in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He founded Lear Developments, a company specializing in aerospace instruments and electronics, and developed radio direction finders, autopilots and the first fully automatic aircraft landing system, among other inventions. He went on to found the Swiss American Aviation Company and later developed the Lear Jet.
- Mary Carson Breckinridge (1881–1965) was an American nurse-midwife and the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service. Born to a prominant family, she was educated at home by tutors. She started family care centers in the Appalachian mountains and was known for helping many people with her hospitals.
- Sho Yano (1990- ) is an American physician who was awarded a PhD in molecular genetics and cell biology from the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago at the age of 18 and became the youngest person to graduate with an MD from the University of Chicago at age 21. His mother homeschooled him through the 12th grade. Dr. Yano began his residency in pediatric neurology at Comer Children’s Hospital in 2012.
- Willard Boyle (1924-2011) was a Canadian physicist and co-inventor of the charge-coupled device. He was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics with George E. Smith for the invention of the imaging semiconductor circuit—the CCD sensor, which allowed NASA to send clear pictures to Earth back from space. It is also the technology that powers many digital cameras today. He also helped develop the first continuously operating ruby laser and the first semiconductor injection laser, helped with the development of integrated circuits for telecommunications and electronics, and worked with NASA to help determine where astronauts should land on the moon. He was home schooled by his mother until age fourteen, when he began his college education.
- Sir Frank Whittle (1907-1996) is credited with single handedly inventing the turbojet engine. Educated for a short time at a private school in England, he was forced to return home when his father’s business failed. He learned at home from then on, both in his father’s workshop and at the local library, where he researched astronomy, engineering, turbines, and the theory of flight in his spare time. At the age of 15, determined to be a pilot, Whittle applied to join the Royal Air Force. After failing the medical exam because of his short stature (he was then only 5 feet tall), he spent six months on a rigorous diet and grew three inches (also putting on three inches in chest circumference). Upon failing again, he applied again under an assumed name and was admitted. His skills and mathematical genius helped him quickly rise through the ranks as a fighter pilot. While writing his thesis, he formulated the fundamental concepts that led to the creation of the turbojet engine, taking out a patent on his design in 1930. He worked as an engineering specialist for Shell Oil, Bristol Aero Engines and the United States Naval Academy, among others. Whittle was ranked number 42 in the BBC poll of the 100 Greatest Britons.
- Arran Fernandez, (1995- ) is an English mathematician who was accepted to Cambridge at age 15. Arran first made headlines in 2001, when he gained the highest grade in the foundation maths paper at age five. His current goal is to be a research mathematician and find a solution to the Riemann hypothesis – the unsolved theory about the patterns of prime numbers that has baffled mathematicians for 150 years. Fernandez has had several sequences published in the On-Line Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences (OEIS), the number theory database established by Neil Sloane. His father Neil, who homeschooled him, told the UK Standard, “Any child could do this. The idea that babies are born with different amounts of intellectual potential is false. It is fundamentally oligarchic. Home-educated children just find it easier to avoid the dumbing-down process.”
These brilliant doctors, inventors, engineers, mathematicians and scholars learned at home in all different ways. Some were self directed, some taught by tutors, some unschooled and some taught with the assistance of college classes.
The one thing they all had in common was that they contributed to STEM advancements in amazing ways in our modern world.
Who knows what the next generation of homeschoolers will contribute?