Jack Andraka at The White House
He’s just an everyday kid, 16 year-old Jack Andraka
He’s the son of an engineer and anesthetist who has vaulted his way onto the main stage of science and innovation. Jack’s work on developing a rapid, highly sensitive and inexpensive test for cancer has made headlines around the world. I interviewed Jack in Feburary and Forbes editor Bruce Upbin profiled his innovations in June 2012. Over the past few months Jack has traveled the world, rubbing shoulders with political and scientific dignitaries at such distinguished places such as TED Conferences, The Royal Society of Medicine in London and even The White House.
But with all the news and excitement about Jack’s scientific achievement, I was interested in learning what really drove him and more about two of the proudest people on the planet–his parents, Steve and Jane Andraka. As it turns out, this story isn’t only about Jack (and his parents). But about the entire family and how Steve and Jane raised two remarkable boys. While Jack has taken the spotlight recently, his older brother Luke has made quite a name for himself. Luke, 18 years old, was the 4th place national winner of the SSP middle school science competition, MIT Think Award winner, 2 time Intel science fair finalist and winner of the $96,000 Sierra Nevada Scholarship at the Intel science fair for his method of treating acid mine drainage.
The Andraka children seemed to be on to something. And that something apparently hinged, in part, upon one key insight from Steve Andraka, ”Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise, and innovation comes from discontent.”
Another Andraka family adventure
I had the chance to speak with Mr. and Mrs. Andraka and found the entire conversation fascinating and enlightening. They broke down their success into two sections–logical and practical. So, moms and dads, here you go…
The ‘theory’ of raising brilliant kids
Independent learning. I almost always have them learn by doing and by making controlled mistakes. And in the process, they think through the problem. When they are stuck on a problem I come over and make them show me what they have done and most of the time they find their problem by just explaining to me what they have done. By explaining things, it makes them think deeper about it and this works with almost all of their problems.
A single-minded focus. Focusing on a particular project is very important in achieving higher goals. When you focus just on a specific goal or problem and ‘wrap your head around the goal’ it opens up all kinds of creativity and problem solving. It’s amazing when a child goes from a feeling of powerlessness to one of mastery.
Engage in your child’s project–even if it’s over your head. Both our children have eclipsed us in knowledge on specific topics and also with their mathematical skills. However growing up they have always known Dad to be the one who can help them with their Math. So, I follow along, ask questions and let the textbook guide some of our discussions. Essentially, I give support, show interest and direct them to use other resources. However, I always try to follow up with them and have them explain their progress. I found that showing an interest by listening, asking questions, encouraging research and reporting back teaches them to solve their questions, encourages them and teaches me something too. When the roles are reversed–I become the student and my child becomes the teacher–I know it’s a success.
Limit rules, encourage independence. We have ‘minimal rules’, but nothing that stifles creativity. Basically, you can sum it up simply: treat people with respect, do your homework be honest and try to be safe. Having too many rules burdens down the entire family and limits thinking.
The ‘practice’ of raising brilliant kids
Theory is fine for the text books. But Steve and Jane offered up some ‘rules to live by’ to help guide every mom and dad that wants to have their child to end up speaking or living in The White House.
Have your child do the thinking, limit how much you do for them in solving a problem. If you are the person wrapping your head around the problem and solving it, your child isn’t.
Ask as many questions as they ask you. With the wealth of knowledge on the internet have them start looking up answers and doing research.
Get them involved with the right peer activities. If they have a competitive side, encourage them to compete on math team or debate team or art competitions. Winning in these type things boosts self esteem. Also, see what other higher level competitions exist. Often, the school may not even know about these other competition. Remember, you are you child’s best advocate and resource. Don’t wait for the school to present your child with opportunities
Model the result you want.
Build things and be creative! It’s not all crunching numbers.
Be involved and stay connected. Every day we ask our children what they did in school.
We also use the parent connect tool to always know how they are doing and to say on top of issues and challenges.
Set early expectations. Our kids know that they are going to college. They have known this since they were in elementary school. We have bookcases of college guides, books on best colleges, how to get in certain schools and other information. It’s a process that starts early.
Success needs to be a shared goal–shared by the family and celebrated by the family. If your child is finding success in an area that you may not be familiar with, you still must encourage and support them. Success brings confidence and your support means everything.
Live outside the box. Petty rules stifle creativity. You can tell you child to think outside of the box, but if you have boxed them in their entire life, they have no creative reference point to begin with.
Teach your kids that most problems in this world are really opportunities in disguise. Innovation comes from discontent. Start when your child is young and keep a list of problems to be pondered or solved. Then, when it is time to do a science fair or other project, you’re ready to go! That’s been very successful for both our children.
Unlocking the genius within?
It seems obvious to me that empowerment is central to this family. Throughout their lives, Jack and Luke’s parents provided the tools needed to unleash their creative potential. This was done, step by step, methodically – yet never in a stifling way. They provided the resources and their children stepped up to the challenge and discovered a worthy purpose. We are now all the beneficiaries of the Andrakas’ excellence in parenting – and for their impact on the world of science and medicine.
To date, Jack and Luke show no sign of slowing down! Jack is a sophomore at North county High school, however he has been spending a lot of time out of school with speaking engagements and working on his next project. Jack is very self disciplined and has been able to self study most of the material that he would be doing in the class room and keep up with the homework. He then takes the tests when he is in school. Jack is reviewing his options for finishing his high school and is being courted by colleges. Luke is a senior at North County High School, and will be graduated this June. He has been accepted by Virginia Tech in their engineering program where he plans to pursue a degree in materials engineering.