Featured Stories, TC

Trinity’s Youngest Calculus Student

Trinity CommunicationsAugust 23, 2017

Meredith Van Dixhorn could see that her homeschooled son Sam was growing bored with his math lessons. She intensified the challenge, but it still was not enough.

Was it possible that pre-algebra and algebra were too easy for her fourth grader?

Meredith started a discussion with Sam about higher math. She explained there were courses he could take in high school that are more challenging – calculus, for example.

“He grabbed onto the idea of learning calculus,” Meredith remembers. “We went to the library and checked out three or four calculus books, and I thought that (his interest) would last for a few minutes at most.”

But calculus was more than a passing curiosity.

“I realized that I actually liked it,” Sam says. “I started reading it some more.”

His mother watched in amazement.

“It was hours and hours, and days and days, and weeks and weeks,” Meredith says. “He just sat there and read these books. He essentially taught himself calculus.”

Calculus textbooks do not cater to nine-year-old readers. Sam ignored most of the verbiage.

“I went right through them because it was really just the math,” Sam says. “I didn’t focus on the words they gave.”

Meredith recognized the need for help.

“I probably could’ve gotten him through geometry pretty easily,” Meredith says, “but after that it would have been a disservice.”

Her first call went to instructors at Christian Life School in the Van Dixhorn’s hometown of Kenosha, Wis. Calculus is considered an Advanced Placement course at the school, so it was recommended that Sam start with pre-calculus, and join some students in grades 11 and 12.

Soon after Meredith made these arrangements, Sam broke his arm in a fourth-grade football game. It affected his writing hand. Meredith asked if Sam could have some extra time to complete the tests, and privately worried that her son might become discouraged.

Even with the broken arm, Sam was the first student to finish the first quiz, and he went on to post the highest grade in the high school class for the first quarter. He repeated that feat in the second quarter. Teachers at Christian Life recognized his gift.

“It was about that time that we all said ‘Okay, maybe it’s time to consider something different,” Meredith recalls. “We started to talk about college classes.”

The Van Dixhorn family has ties to Trinity International University, and a friend in the administration recommended checking with Professor of Mathematics Paul Bialek.

Meredith was reluctant to make the call.

“I mean, you sound like a crazy woman when you tell someone ‘my nine-year-old knows calculus,” Meredith says with a laugh.

Before picking up the phone, she prayed for a good outcome.

“I don’t know if you’re going to be happy that you picked up the phone,” Meredith remembers saying to Bialek. She then described her journey with Sam and the need to find someone who could help him with calculus.

“The first thing Dr. Bialek said to me was, ‘I would love to work with a kid like Sam,’” Meredith says. “And then he said, ‘Why don’t we pray for him?’”

It was agreed that Sam, now age 10, was ready to take Calculus I in the spring of 2017. He entered the classroom on the first day without fanfare and chose a seat. At least one student thought that maybe he was lost.

“You know, they’re trying to be kind,” Meredith says, “and they ask him ‘are you lost?’ And Sam said, ‘Is this Calc I?’ And the kid said, ‘Yeah.’ And Sam said, ‘Then I’m not lost.’ And he just got out his notebook.”

Bialek uses the Socratic Method in his classes, frequently calling on students to answer questions about the material or work on calculations.

“I would ask someone ‘what do you think about this?’” Bialek says. “If they don’t get it, they would just say, ‘I don’t know. Ask Sam about it.’”

“He’s often the first to volunteer an answer, so it’s clear that he really understands these things,” Bialek says. “Of course, that’s validated when you get back tests and Sam gets the highest grade.”

Sam finished Calculus I with a 97 average, which Bialek says was the highest grade in the class. The experience was a first in 31 years of teaching math at the collegiate level. Bialek’s youngest pupil prior to Sam was a 16-year-old.

“Sam is a gifted child,” Bialek says. “He’s not just smart. He’s gifted. It’s different. I don’t know what he’ll end up doing, but he’s obviously very sharp. Who knows what the Lord will do through him mathematically in years to come?”

Bialek says the Van Dixhorns handled Sam’s math gift in a wise manner. They cautiously sought a greater challenge.

“Sometimes, these students get disruptive and they actually flounder in class because they’re just so far advanced that they’re bored with things,” Bialek says. “I think the best thing to do is to reach out for resources.”

“It’s a cliché, but a mind is a terrible thing to waste. How much worse is it to waste a brilliant mind?”

Sam is a typical 10-year-old boy in many ways. He prefers playing football to talking about future career choices.

“People will say to us, ‘Oh my gosh, your kid goes there. Is he living on campus? Does he go there all day?’” Meredith says. “He just goes for math. We’re doing the rest with him separately.”

The plan is to take Calculus II in fall 2017, and then perhaps several more advanced math courses in the spring. Sam could have 19 hours of college credit by age 11.

“It’s a privilege and an honor to teach Sam,” Bialek says. “May he do well and may God keep him humble, because God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

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