Jane Andraka is warm, funny, and down-to-earth mom, who happens to be, according to Forbes magazine, “a genius at raising brilliant kids.” Her sons Luke and Jack have been taking the science and engineering world by storm, while still in their teens. Her younger son Jack developed a break-through, simple test for pancreatic cancer and is the winner of the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the grand prize of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Her son Luke won the 2010 Intel competition, including the “Genius Scholarship,” and the following year, the THINK award given by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to students whose projects benefit their communities. He is currently in college studying engineering and will graduate debt-free.
Jane was a dedicated and dynamic educational force in her children’s schooling, as she explains in her TEDX talk “Hijacking Your Children’s Education.” Jane, an anesthetist, works nights and her husband, an engineer, works days. They both needed to work, but they organized their work lives so that they could have more time with the kids and be available for whatever the kids needed.
I talked to Jane about what she did differently when raising her kids.
Lisa: Your boys are products of public school, with a short stint in private elementary school. Why did you switch from private to public?
Jane: First, we realized that private schools were really like country clubs to keep kids away from people. I think exposing kids to diversity is really important. We have all kinds of people in this world. We are all human and we all make mistakes. Nobody is better than anyone else. Then, when we moved them to public school, we discovered that the private schools in our area were academically way behind the public schools.
Lisa: It is hard to believe that they were ever behind! How did you catch them up?
Jane: Jack moved to public school in 5th grade. He was behind in math so we took him to Kumon (tutoring service) to catch up. Then we found a charter school with a focus on math and science and a program that we felt was especially good for boys. The school incorporated lots of frequent movement along with its concentrated work. I thought that really helped, because boys and girls can be different (in their attention span and need for movement). In high school, the boys supported trying to get more girls involved in science and math because their academic competition teams were stronger when they included both girls and boys.
Lisa: How did you have time for everything?
Jane: (Laughing) What do you mean? Geez, they get out of school around 2; they don’t go to bed until about 10–that’s at least 8 hours to DO something with your kids, to be learning something.
Lisa: How did you decide what to do with that time?
Jane: I asked them what they wanted to learn more about – what they wanted to do with themselves. We liked to tell our boys that problems are really opportunities in disguise. So what problems did they want to solve? And then we helped them as they figured out how they could work on those problems. We would do projects together, but always have the kids take the lead. We would ask them questions. And most importantly, we modeled the process of learning and doing.
Lisa: Why did you keep them in school? Why not take them out and have all day for projects?
Jane: We felt that they could go to school to learn how to deal with other people, different kinds of people, and how to negotiate with their teachers and peers. And they went to learn how to not be disruptive, to sit quietly and pay attention when something is boring, because we all have meetings like that at some time in our life. They can learn how to meet expectations and negotiate about those expectations if needed. Heck, there is a lot they can learn. But school is only, what 6 hours a day? Not every day. The parent still has plenty of time to make a difference.
Lisa: What did you do when you realized your kids were really bright?
Jane: I got on the Internet to look for resources when they were really young! I found the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth (http://cty.jhu.edu/) there, and that they did testing and had lots of opportunities. I thought it would be easier for the kids to qualify when they were really young, and if they did, they would have more time to take advantage of the programs, so I had them tested as soon as they were able, which was around 2nd grade.
Lisa: How did they feel about the testing?
Jane: I made sure the kids knew the test was no big deal. There was no drama around it, I just said ‘let’s just take this and find out what we can.’
Lisa: And after they were tested?
Jane: Then I had to slowly educate myself about the opportunities out there. It was great. John Hopkins had summer programs where the kids would have a couple of weeks running around with other kids just like them and that was wonderful for them and me! Plus, there were classes and all kinds of resources like competitions and things the kids could work towards. The Internet is so great–get on there and find the resources you and your kids need. And then get them there.
Lisa: You have a really refreshing and healthy attitude toward competition and working hard. How do you feel about competition?
Jane: I say enjoy the work. Enter the competition, but go there for fun and to learn, not to win. It is so great to meet the other kids and see their projects. You learn more about communicating and get feedback that can help you improve at a competition. But don’t make the mistake of thinking the win and the judging is what is important. It is a one day thing and you have no control over the judge. It’s never good if you let the competition outcome determine whether you feel good about what you have done or yourself. Whether you are competing in science or sports or whatever, do things just because you love them not for the glory.
Lisa: That sounds easy, but actually doing it is hard! I hate competition, personally, how would I make it a healthy experience for my kid?
Jane: First, make sure you, the parent, focus on the joy of the learning and not the prize. Second, do what the child needs, not what you, the parents prefer. And third, look for opportunities that focus on teams, presenting, or feedback with less focus on competition for a child that needs a less stressful environment.
Both our boys reacted differently to competitions: one thrived under the stress of competition; the other, was less stress resistant. So we took different approaches to competition. One boy skipped Advanced Placement classes to have more time to work on projects, while the other took the classes, but approached them as a challenge to ace them with the least amount of energy.
Lisa: How did you find the energy for so many competitions!
Jane: We did one project for many competitions. So you can take the same research and write an essay for an essay competition, or make a video, or, well there’s lots of different ways to share what you have done. And then you are meeting more and different kinds of people and learning how to present your work in different mediums. It’s such a great way to decide what you want to learn and work on.
Lisa: And how did you figure out what projects to do?
Jane: I had the kids tell me what they wanted to do and why. I had them justify the plan they had. I wanted them to think through what they wanted to do and why it made sense. Kids’ brains are different and it makes sense that they should have different approaches. You have to find the right coaches or programs for your kid, whether it’s sports, arts, or academics. Ask yourself how you can help them develop and then Google away. And then show up and support them.
Lisa: What would you like to say to other parents?
Jane: Take personal responsibility! Stop blaming the schools, the teachers, the system, WHATEVER. Stop blaming and you take action. Stop doing only what is convenient. You decided to have kids, so step up. Kids are an inconvenience, that’s the point. You are supposed to do what it takes to help them develop and reach their potential. You, not someone else.
Lisa: Thank you, Jane!
If you would like to read more about the Andraka family and their approach to parenting see: