Reflections on a Life That Didn’t Go According to Plan

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Over the past two weekends, I attended two homeschooling conventions. They were both Great Homeschool Conventions, and after a year of doing no live conventions at all, I was overjoyed to be back in the saddle. I was also thrilled to see so many families refusing to live in fear and gathering together as a community. I had a lot of wonderful conversations with homeschooling veterans, new homeschooling parents, homeschool students, and homeschool graduates. While many people told me things that were deeply meaningful, there was one event that stands out in my mind, and I must share it.

A homeschooling mother stopped by my publisher’s booth and gave me a manila envelope. It contained a very nice card from her, and a report on some original research her high-school-age daughter had done under the supervision of a professor at a local college. It involved the interaction of bacteria and fungi with certain antibiotics and fungicides. The experiments produced some novel results, and it might end up being published in the scientific literature. The title page of the paper contained this handwritten note from the student:

Dr. Wile, I took what you taught me, and I ran with it. Thank you.

Apparently, she had used my book, Discovering Design with Chemistry, and was inspired to pursue a career in biochemistry, so she started taking college classes while still in high school. There, she met a professor who was happy to encourage her, and that’s how she ended up being able to do the experiments that are discussed in the report. She ended up coming by my publisher’s booth. We got to talk for a while, and I could see her eyes light up when she discussed what she had done. She clearly has a passion for scientific research, and it really made my day!

Since the time this enthusiastic young lady left my publisher’s booth, I have been waxing a bit nostalgic (being sappy is what my daughter would call it), thinking about all of the students who have told me about their scientific accomplishments. One student discovered a new virus. Another developed a new way of producing heavy elements. Another has published more than 40 articles in the scientific literature and is a leader in the field of prenatal imaging. I could go on and on.

What’s my point? Well, when I went to university, my plan was to do exactly what these incredible individuals are doing. I was going to get my Ph.D. in chemistry and become a world-class scientist. While I accomplished the first goal, the second never materialized. I got my Ph.D., became a professor, got grants to do research, and did research that lead to many publications in the peer-reviewed literature of nuclear chemistry. Had I continued, I would have gotten my shot at becoming a world-class scientist. But then something happened. I met my first homeschool graduate.

He was a student in my general chemistry course, and he was head-and-shoulders above his classmates. When I learned that he was homeschooled, I was shocked. I had no idea how a mother without any training (his mother hadn’t even gone to college) could produce a superstar science student. As time went on, I met more outstanding students who were homeschool graduates, so I investigated this “odd phenomenon” on my own. I found that my experiences were indicative of the norm: homeschool graduates are (on average) the best university students. As a result, I started working with homeschooling parents, and eventually, I started writing homeschooling curriculum for them.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that I loved writing curriculum more than university teaching and scientific research, so I eventually left the university and did some consulting work in order to spend more time writing. After my curriculum became popular enough, I stopped consulting and became a full-time writer. I did that for several years, but now I have found a way to balance teaching and writing, so I now teach both high school and university students while still producing new homeschooling curriculum.

While I truly love what I am doing, I sometimes wonder about the choices I made. Once I went to university, I had a solid plan. What would have happened had I followed that plan? Would I have made some great scientific breakthrough? Probably not. While I have made some modest scientific discoveries with the help of others (such as radial energy scaling in heavy-ion collisions and an explanation for an odd chemical phenomenon), I don’t think I have the talent that is required to do great scientific research.

After this past weekend, I have come to realize that I have a tangible reason for being glad my life didn’t go according to plan. Had I followed my plan, I would have probably been a mediocre scientist. Because I followed the opportunities the Lord placed in front of me, however, I have helped inspire some truly incredible people to become scientists. I am certain that they will eventually produce more scientific advancements than I ever could have.

I guess what I am saying is that if the Lord puts opportunities in your path that require you to change or abandon the plans you have made, you should take those opportunities. His plans are better than yours!

Harvard Graduate Responds to Proposed Ban on Homeschooling

Harvard Square as seen from a nearby building (click for credit)

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an anti-homeschooling summit that was being held at Harvard Law School. Well, over the weekend, I got several emails and Facebook contacts that contained an article written about one of the summit’s organizers, Professor Elizabeth Bartholet. The article discusses a paper she recently wrote in the Arizona Law Review. That paper

…calls for a radical transformation in the homeschooling regime and a related rethinking of child rights. It recommends a presumptive ban on homeschooling, with the burden on parents to demonstrate justification for permission to homeschool.

Once I read the article and the abstract from Dr. Bartholet’s paper, I started planning the rebuttal piece that I was going to write. After all, my first exposure to homeschooling was having homeschool graduates in my Ball State University chemistry and physics courses. They impressed me so much that I started researching home education and eventually started working with homeschoolers. Today, I am a strong advocate of homeschooling specifically because I have come to the conclusion that it is the best model of education available to parents in the United States.

Fortunately, there is no need for me to write that rebuttal article, because an excellent one has already been written by Melba Pearson,
a homeschool graduate who also graduated from Harvard. I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, as well as one of the articles (published in The Harvard Crimson) that she links to. However, I must leave you with the closing paragraph of her article, which succinctly explains why Dr. Bartholet’s idea is not only absurd, but profoundly anti-education:

I excelled at Harvard because I was homeschooled, and of that I am proud. It is deeply disappointing that Harvard is choosing and promoting an intellectual totalitarian path that calls for a ban of the liberties that helped me and countless others succeed, for it is those liberties and ideals that have made America the great nation it is today.

Bethel McGrew, Homeschool Graduate and Mathematics Ph.D. Student

The universe is inherently mathematical. Many scientists have come to this realization, but one of the first was Galileo Galilei. In his book, The Assayer, he wrote:

[The universe] cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it.

I have always been intrigued by people who dedicate themselves to learning this language, and I had the privilege of interviewing one such person last week: Mathematics Ph.D. student Bethel McGrew.

Bethel McGrew
Bethel was homeschooled K-12, and her experience produced a lifelong love of learning, whether the topic was literature, science, music, or chess (she has been a competitive tournament player but can now proudly say she is no longer the highest-rated among her siblings!) She didn’t do much with co-ops or group activities, and in some ways, I would say that her experience was that of a “classic” homeschooler. Her family used curriculum when it fit their needs, and when it didn’t, they found some other way to get the job done. For example, she said that her family couldn’t find a good course for geometry, so she just read Euclid.

In case you don’t know who that is, he’s the father of geometry. His treatise, Elements, was written around 300 BC and is considered one of the most important works of mathematics to this day. That was her primary reference for learning high school geometry! This was common in her homeschooling, perhaps because her parents (each has a Ph.D.) were so academically inclined. She read many primary sources as a part of her secondary education. For example, she read the works of Josephus (a first-century Jewish historian) to learn more about the history of New Testament times.

While her homeschooling experience was quite classic, her higher education was more modern. She started with distance-learning courses from Christian universities like Patrick Henry College and Bryan College. She then transferred to Western Michigan University in her home town of Kalamazoo and continued living at home while she finished her undergraduate degree. She originally thought she would pursue a career in philosophy (the field of her father’s Ph.D. and her mother’s main professional research focus) but decided to double major in philosophy and mathematics, discovering an unexpected love for the latter when some professors helped her see the beauty of math. She was offered and accepted a teaching assistantship to pursue a Ph.D. there. As a TA, she has taught everything from algebra to applied calculus, adding occasional long-distance tutoring work on the side with Asian ESL (English as a second language) students. She has earned her master’s degree en route and is currently beginning work on her dissertation in graph theory.

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Dr. Winston Ewert, Homeschool Graduate and Software Engineer

Dr. Winston Ewert
Back in July of last year, I wrote about what might be one of the most important genetic studies of the decade. It treated an organism’s genome like a large computer program that was put together using specific groups of genes as programming “modules.” The study showed that this view of the genome made more sense of the genetic similarities between certain animals than an evolutionary view. When I read the study and blogged about it, I did not recognize the author’s name and had no idea who he was. Later on, he contacted me and thanked me for blogging about his study. He also informed me that he is a homeschool graduate and used my courses in his education. I recently contacted him to see if he would be willing to be a part of my homeschool graduate project, and he graciously agreed.

Dr. Ewert was homeschooled K-12, as were his four siblings. Like many homeschoolers, his parents’ primary motivation was to school their children using a Christian worldview. However, unlike most of the homeschool graduates I have talked with and written about, he was homeschooled in British Columbia, Canada. This actually made access to university a bit more difficult for him. Most British Columbia universities weren’t “homeschool friendly” like U.S. universities, so when he graduated from homeschooling, he started his higher education at Kwantlen University College, which was pretty much the Canadian equivalent of a community college. After two semesters, he transferred to Trinity Western University to finish his degree.

He said he had developed a computer obsession by the age of 10, so he knew he wanted to study computers. At Kwantlen, he started studying computer information systems. He transferred to Trinity when he realized he should be studying computer science instead. Had he started out in computer science at Trinity, this would have made graduating in four years a bit easier. That’s the only real negative aspect he could think of regarding his homeschooling.

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Robert Rowlett, Homeschool Graduate and Deputy Attorney General

Robert Rowlett
I recently wrote about Hayley Bower, a homeschool graduate who earned a degree in Engineering Physics. When I interviewed her for that article, I also interviewed her boyfriend, Robert Rowlett. He is just as impressive as Hayley, but in a completely different way. He was homeschooled for thirteen years, kindergarten through 12th grade, and he had a very traditional experience. Unlike most homeschooled students, he didn’t get together every week with other homeschoolers in a co-op setting. Instead, he learned on his own and was entirely taught at home. His only co-op experience was teaching a co-op class.

By the time he was in high school, his parents noticed that he took after his grandfather, who had been a chancery court judge in Tennessee for 25 years. As a result, they signed him up for a homeschool speech and debate team. Initially, he found the public speaking experience nerve-wracking, but he got over that pretty quickly. As he told me:

It didn’t take six months of competing [in debate tournaments] and it became my entire high school…It’s what I loved doing, and I did it all the time.

Not surprisingly, the class he taught at co-op was a speech and debate class.

As you would expect from someone who loves speech and debate, he wanted to be an attorney. He decided to major in biology at Anderson University and then go to law school. As time went on, however, he found that the biology program was largely focused on preparing students for the medical profession, so he switched majors to political science. He ended up graduating in three and a half years magna cum laude as a member of the AU Honors Program. His B.A. is in political science with a minor in biology.

The semester before Robert graduated, an AU chemistry professor asked him to speak to a group of six incoming freshman who were recent homeschool graduates. The professor wanted Robert to share his thoughts on the transition from homeschooling to university. Guess who was one of those incoming freshmen? Hayley Bower! That’s how they met. So you could say that homeschooling is what brought them together.

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Hayley Bower, Homeschool Graduate and Engineer

Hayley Bower
I have been interviewing homeschool graduates to learn what they are doing these days, how homeschooling helped or harmed them in their post-high-school endeavors, and what advice they might give to homeschooling parents and students. As part of that project, I was happy to interview a former student of mine, Hayley Bower. At the same time, I interviewed her boyfriend who is also a homeschool graduate, and I will write about him in a separate article.

I met Hayley in 2014 when she was a student in the general chemistry course I taught at Anderson University. A faculty member had informed me that she was a homeschool graduate and had used my biology, chemistry, and physics courses in high school, but I probably would have guessed it anyway. As is typical for homeschool graduates, she was in the honors program, actively engaged in class, and confident with the material. In addition, she always had a wonderful smile on her face when she spoke with me.

Hayley graduated from Anderson University four years later with a degree in engineering physics. She earned the Outstanding Student of the Year award in the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering for the 2015-2016 school year. When that was announced publicly, I joked with my colleagues that since she was my student as a freshman, I was taking all the credit for her earning the award. Honestly, however, I had nothing to do with it. She was an outstanding student from the moment she walked into my class.

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Tori Miller, Homeschool Graduate and Elementary Education Major

Tori Miller, a homeschool graduate I have in one of my university courses.
As I mentioned in a previous post, I first learned about home education when I found out that my top students at Ball State University were graduates of homeschooling. After taking a long hiatus from academic life to write textbooks designed for homeschoolers, I am once again “dabbling” in academia as an adjunct professor of chemistry and physics at Anderson University. I am once again teaching homeschool graduates in my university classes, and I continue to be impressed by them.

As a part of a new series on this blog, I decided to interview one of my current students, Tori Miller, who is in a physics class I am co-teaching. Entitled “Teaching STEM in the Elementary Classroom,” it gives future teachers specific tools that they can use to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) into their lesson plans. While you might find it odd that a homeschool graduate is studying to be a school teacher, I think it is awesome!

Tori was homeschooled K-12, and although she has only been at Anderson University for two years, she is technically near the end of her junior year because of all the college credits she has earned. Initially, she was thinking about studying accounting so she could help her father in a family business, but she decided she wanted to work more directly with people. If you meet Tori in person, you will see why. She is friendly, outgoing, and always willing to lend a helping hand.

Once she decided that she wanted to work with people, she gravitated towards professions where she could help make the world a better place. She considered nursing, but says that science is not her strong suit, although you wouldn’t know that from her performance in my class. She settled on education because she thinks that she can do a lot of good there, and she hopes that she can bring the values that she learned through homeschooling to the classroom.

I asked Tori about how she thinks homeschooling prepared her for university life. She says it produced a good work ethic in her, and it also taught her about taking responsibilities seriously and having respect for authority figures. She also says that homeschooling gave her a desire to pursue a higher education, since she was taught to appreciate learning and was also encouraged to make life better for those around her.

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A New Category

Me and a homeschool graduate who studied chemistry at university.

I really enjoyed preparing for and writing my previous post about homeschool graduate Dr. Nathan T. Brewer. If the statistics are correct, it was one of my most-read posts this year. As a result, I decided I would try to do some more writing about homeschool graduates and what they are doing these days. I have already scheduled an interview with a student who is currently in one of my university courses, and I am collecting contact information for other homeschool graduates. I hope to find out what they are doing, whether or not their faith plays a role in what they are doing, and what their honest opinions are about how homeschool prepared them for life beyond high school. While my natural inclination is to interview homeschool graduates who went on to some form of higher education, I hope to interview many homeschool graduates who participate in a wide range of careers.

While thinking about this new project, I realized that I have already written about homeschool graduates several times, so I decided to add a new category:

Homeschool Graduates

While the articles mostly focus on studies that have been performed on homeschool graduates, there are also some articles about individuals. Enjoy!

Dr. Nathan T. Brewer: Homeschool Graduate and Nuclear Physicist

Dr. Nathan T. Brewer
When I was on the faculty at Ball State University (in the early 1990s), I started encountering a unique group of students: homeschool graduates. I knew nothing about homeschooling, but I was impressed by what I saw. Not only were homeschool graduates excellent university students, but they were also at university for more than just the chance to get a degree and get a good job. They were there because they recognized that God had given them specific gifts, and to honor Him, they needed to develop those gifts and use them to make the world better for other people. My experience with them inspired me to start working with homeschooling parents, and eventually, I began writing homeschooling curriculum.

Since that time, I have been constantly impressed with the homeschooled students and homeschool graduates I have encountered. They are still my best university students, and I expect that they will do great things. Yesterday, I had a chance to chat with one who is, indeed, doing great things: Dr. Nathan T. Brewer. He is currently doing postdoctoral research for the University of Tennessee and is employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory. He is part of a team that is trying to understand the structure of the atomic nucleus by synthesizing new elements.

His proud mother informed me about his work via Facebook, so I contacted him, and he sent me a copy of the paper that he thinks contains his most important scientific work so far. In that paper, he describes experiments that he and an international team of scientists performed to show an alternate method of producing the heaviest-known element, which is named Oganesson in honor of Russian nuclear physicist Yuri Tsolakovich Oganessian. He thinks that this method shows the most promise for synthesizing even heavier elements, and it also helps us further understand how these exotic nuclear reactions happen. While all of this might sound unfamiliar to you, it is very important work in the field of nuclear physics, and I am impressed that someone so young has been a successful part of it.

While I am fascinated by the science he is doing, I thought my readers would be interested in the fact that he was homeschooled from grades 6 through grades 12, so he graciously agreed to take time out of his busy day to speak with me about topics that are of interest to homeschooling parents.

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Why I Am Glad That I Homeschooled

My favorite picture of me and my little girl. It was taken in Capetown, South Africa in 2004, when we were on a homeschooling speaking tour.

My little girl turns 40 this month. I am not sure how to take that. In my mind, she is still that 16-year-old girl who loved Dan Marino, computer games, and ice cream cake. Where in the world did the time go? As I think about all the wonderful (and not-so-wonderful) times we have experienced together, I see a lot of mistakes that I made in parenting her. There are definitely things I would do differently if I could turn back the clock to the day we adopted her. However, the one thing I know I would not change is our decision to homeschool her.

We started homeschooling her as soon as we could, and the reason was simple: she was the classic example of a student who “fell through the cracks.” When she was having a good day, she learned well. When she wasn’t having a good day, she didn’t. As a result, there were large, gaping holes in her education. Not surprisingly, then, when she took the PSAT test, she scored in the bottom 35% of the nation in math and the top 25% of the nation in English. She wanted to get a college degree, because as far as she knew, no one in her biological heritage had one. Getting a degree would provide a tangible break from her past. However, with those scores, she would have a difficult time getting accepted to college, much less succeeding when she got there.

As a result, we spent most of her homeschooling in “educational triage.” We identified the holes in her education and then filled them. When she took the ACT (one of the standardized tests used for college entrance) early in her senior year, she scored in the top 5% in English and the top 30% in math. As a scientist, I decided that the numbers were the ultimate evidence that the decision to homeschool her was a good one. She ended up being accepted at Butler University and graduating with a degree in sociology (which, of course, she doesn’t use).

In my mind, then, homeschooling was all about academics. Our daughter wanted a college degree, and the only way we could prepare her for college was to homeschool her. Even after she had graduated college, I still thought that homeschooling her was all about academics. However, as time went on, my view of the matter began to change. As I celebrated the successes in her adult life and helped her deal with the failures, I started to notice that our relationship was very different from the relationships that most of my friends had with their adult children. Our daughter actually wants to spend time – lots of time – with us. For example, right now, as she is about to turn 40, she is on a mother-daughter vacation. When my wife suggested the idea to her, she was thrilled. At Christmas, I gave her a little picture book that had old and new photos of me, her, and my wife. When she opened it, her husband said, “Look at how her face just lit up.”

Why do I have a daughter who loves to spend time with me and her mother? If you ask her, it’s because we spent so much time together when she was young. In these days when children are separated from their parents by school, after-school activities, and other distractions, it’s hard to form a deep family bond. When you homeschool, you are not only using the best possible educational model to teach your child, but you are also doing something very few families do: you are spending a lot of time together. In the long run, that makes a huge difference!

Does that mean everyone who homeschools will have a great relationship with their adult children? Of course not! There are many, many factors that play into how people bond with one another. However, probably the most crucial of those factors is time that you spend together. The more time you spend with your children, the better you get to know them. Looking back on my homeschooling my little girl, I recognize that she got an incredible education. More importantly, however, we all got an amazing gift: lots of time to enjoy one another and grow closer together. Of all the wonderful things I can say about homeschooling, that is the most important.