19 year-old Stanford Ph.D. dropout Andrew Hsu is Changing Education

by Jared Tame on July 28, 2011

Andrew Hsu, AiryLabs.com Co-founder

I got really excited when I first read about the Thiel 20 Under 20. I had some hesitation about speaking to some of the Fellows for Startups Open Sourced because I tend to look for founders who have at least experienced their trough of sorrow, but Andrew Hsu really jumped off the list of Fellows when I looked it over. He hasn’t experienced a trough of sorrow yet, but he has an interesting perspective on education and his startup is aimed at improving the model of learning for kids.

Warning: personal rant on education here; skip ahead a few paragraphs if you’re interested in getting to the interview. These are my personal opinions (not Andrew Hsu’s) in the next few paragraphs from my own experience. The Andrew Hsu interview is below in the Q&A format. I’ve always been interested in education because I’ve always had this sneaking suspicion that it was horribly broken. I’ve always struggled communicating what exactly is wrong with public education aside from personal rants, but after talking to Andrew, everything he says about education reflects how I’ve thought about it.

When I was 10 years old, I would constantly complain to my parents that I felt unchallenged and everything moved slowly. I had straight A’s, but I felt like I wasn’t learning anything useful. It was boring memorizing all of the states in America and where they went on a map. Really, if I want to know I’ll just pull up a map like normal people do, what’s the point in memorizing them? It’s the same argument where CS professors ask their students to memorize the runtime of various algorithms. In real life, people are going to look it up on Wikipedia; the actual importance is designing and understanding how the algorithms work, not quoting verbatim the runtimes of 25 different algorithms in a 50 minute span of time on a written test. If you’re a doctor, you might need to memorize lethal doses in an emergency room so you don’t give a patient too much morphine; it might matter in that case. I found out about Montessori schools after I started reading In the Plex–both Larry and Sergey attended Montessori schools–and that looked like an attractive model.

I’ve been a fan of how Khan Academy works (watch my interview with John Resig where he discusses this). I think the current model of public education resembles an assembly line too much. Everyone goes in at a certain age, they come out at a certain age. They all progress at the same pace and learn the exact same material. They also have no say in what they’re learning, they just take whatever is handed to them in the textbooks and that’s what they learn. Students sit in classrooms for 6 or 7 hours a day, which was never a good way to learn. You have a teacher who talks at an entire class, and when one student has a question, it blocks the whole class from moving forward. On the other hand, you also see the classes where nobody asks questions and some students just fall behind; there’s an implicit pressure to be quiet because you might risk looking stupid if you raise your hand. That might go away if students helping each other was baked in, which is part of both Khan Academy and now Airy Labs’ educational models. It feels more natural. Any time I ever got help from other students it was far more helpful than how the teacher was trying to present it.

And then there’s the issue of popularity, which some say is healthy because it teaches you important social skills. That might be true, but what ends up happening is people become so distracted with managing popularity that they lose the focus on the actual purpose of being in school: the education. Anyone who has read Why Nerds are Unpopular recognizes that smart people are penalized for their intelligence, and that’s something I got distracted with in school. I think I hold a little resentment to this day for how schools have degraded into a popularity contest rather than a place where we teach the next generation to build the next wave of innovative technologies. I’m not saying I didn’t drink and go to parties in college, but the problem feels much worse in high school than in college. In college, there’s far less social pressure to maintain popularity, and you’re actually valued for your intelligence.

The major difference to me in high school vs. college is the work in college–for me at least–is actually challenging and intellectually interesting. There were times when I got frustrated with how the specs were written, but otherwise you were given an assignment and there was a part of your mind that worried “will I be able to do this? Will I make the deadline for the first submission?” This is a healthy assignment because it pushes your limits. You have no idea how you’ll write this C++ image processing library that creates a collage of images based on a single input image. You’re taught the algorithms and data structures, and then you go off and figure out the rest with your partner.

End of rant–skip to here if you want the interview. There are lots of things broken with the model of public education and I think we’re in a period of time where that is changing. Andrew Hsu is one of the people who wants to change education by making it fun and introducing newer forms of media to teach.

Andrew has done a few impressive things, which makes me particularly interested in his outlook on education:

  • Labeled as a “genius” from IQ testing at 6 years old
  • Completed high school at 9 years old
  • Passed ACT with a 99% score at 11 years old
  • 3 B.S. degrees at 16 years old in neurobiology, biochemistry, and chemistry (with a minor in math)
  • Started Stanford Ph.D. at 16 years old, dropped out at 19
  • Accepted into the Peter Thiel 20 Under 20 Fellowship at 19 years old to create Airy Labs

Q: School is a very interesting topic to me; it’s something I talk about with all founders interviewed for Startups Open Sourced. How did you progress from K through 12?

Sure. So I’m originally from Seattle, where I went to public elementary school up until 4th grade and I was 7 years old at that point. I skipped a few grades by then and I was in some more advanced math classes, as well as the gifted program. The story there is: in 4th grade, my parents and teachers discovered I was so far ahead that I was making trouble and getting distracted. My parents finally made the incredibly wise decision to homeschool me. My homeschooling experience was done right because first off, we had my private teachers who my parents hired, my parents also taught me, and I also learned by myself. I did online virtual school type of curricula. Washington State has a very high concentration of homeschooling families, so we attended a co-op in this mega church called Legacy School.

A lot of the teachers also happened to be parents, and some of them were college professors. The classes were segregated by ability rather than by age, which is great. All of my classmates were much older than me, but I was at the right intellectual level. I was homeschooled from ages 7 to 11. When I was 10, I decided I wanted to become a biologist and run my own lab. I convinced a professor at the University of Washington to let me work in his microbiology lab for a year. While I was in that lab, I entered a project into the Washington State Science & Engineering Fair, and I won the grand prize there. I eventually went to the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair—this is when the SARS scare was happening, so China and Taiwan didn’t show up.

Eventually, I applied to the University of Washington and a lot of other colleges, but the others insisted that freshman live in dorms the first year and my mother said “no” to that. From 12 to 16 years-old (2003-2007), I got three degrees: neurobiology, biochemistry, and chemistry, and I also minored in math. After that in 2007, I knew I wanted to start a business but I didn’t know what the timing was. So I ended up going to Stanford and studied neurobiology. I didn’t go to M.I.T. because—and I am trying to choose my words carefully because I don’t want to offend anyone—I felt like people were a little bit more friendly at Stanford and it’s in Silicon Valley. I didn’t want to deal with the Boston weather. When I interviewed at M.I.T. I was wearing a winter coat, and it was still extremely cold there.

At Stanford, I was doing my neuroscience Ph.D. and I just left in January of 2011 to incorporate my company, which happened in April. We just raised some seed funding, so that’s the quick overview. The reason I dropped out was because I felt I had enough education as it was; I knew the timing was right to do a startup. I was happy to get out of there after 3 years because the time it takes to complete a Ph.D. is about 6.5 years. Whatever I did, I knew I wanted to be sure it had a major impact on the world. I wanted to build products that people would immediately use.

Q: To me, the most impressive thing is how quickly you completed school. You were done with high school at 11. What’s your secret? Was it the homeschooling?

A lot of people ask me this. When I started college, I was really young so I received a lot of media attention. I received an offer from a publisher in China to write a memoir autobiography when I was 12, which won the national children’s book award and they all ask this same question. To be honest, I don’t have a complete answer. I think genetics play a small role. I’m naturally smart and I have the ability to absorb information pretty quickly just by reading. But that only counts for a small part. I’ve read a lot of self-help books, but there are a lot of rigorous and diligent systems that I make sure I follow in order to get things done.

At the end of every day, you measure yourself by your productivity and how much you get done. There are systems to ensure I stay productive.

Q: Do you have any particular daily habits that you use or do you have a favorite book?

I’m trying to setup systems right now to maximize productivity, and the major part of that is goal setting. Most people just don’t know how to do proper goal setting. It’s important to plan for the next day what you want to get done.

What is proper goal setting? Most people when they set goals, if they want to learn a scripting language like Lua, they’ll say “I want to learn Lua today.” But proper goal setting is about using numbers, quantities, and times. Be as specific as you can, and set very specific goals for every single day. What are you trying to accomplish by the end of the day? Do it the night before. At the end of the day, it’s okay if you don’t accomplish all of your goals—that might even be good; it means you might be setting a high bar for yourself.

At the end of every day, review your productivity for the day. Then you set your goals for the next day. That’s the cycle and the ritual I’ve built up over time. I think it’s psychologically very effective because it gives you a specific set of things to do and it sets up a structure for doing them. There are a lot of myths people believe about planning about how it stifles creativity and innovation: they think it creates too much rigor, so you can’t be imaginative. That’s a false dichotomy.

So every day, do you basically wake up and say “last night I told myself I have to do these three things” and then you figure out at the end of the day what works?

Yeah, the core of setting goals and getting those goals done works for me, and I’ve told people about it and it works for them. I’m trying to use the same strategy in the company because it’s a tremendous tactic to be successful.

Q: How do you deal with distractions though? I think a lot of people set goals and they want to be productive, but then distractions get in the way: you have TV, Starcraft, games, all of that stuff.

I’m running a game company. I love games—I played so many games in college it was ridiculous. I could have had much better grades if I didn’t play games. My time is very limited now, so I play them every once in a while. I don’t own a TV, but I watch stuff on Hulu occasionally.

But when you set specific goals, you just know what you need to do. It affects your psychology. You’re less prone to be distracted. I’m pretty athletic, so I enjoy all types of things—sports, computer games, hanging out with friends. I don’t have a magical way of dealing with all of it, but I just set goals for myself and I try very hard to strive to complete those goals. The goals I set for myself are slightly unrealistic because it helps me push the envelope and be more productive.

For distractions, I just try to deal with them as they come. For e-mails, I try to respond to them immediately. I read an article by the person who started Slideshare, and she always replies to e-mails on the spot because if you don’t, you are taking up more mental capacity to read once and then again later.

Q: Do you think the public school system is broken in any way? You were homeschooled; do you think there’s anything that public schools can learn from that model?

I have very strong views on the education system. I’ve done non-profit stuff my whole life, but one I’m currently setting up is to create a series of public charter schools around the world starting in northern or southern California. They’d use the mechanics of games, technology, and neuroscience to transform the curriculum. More people are talking about “how do we revamp the industrial age educational model” and what I saw at the Legacy School co-op was an important split according to skill, not age. The caveat is there needs to be proper socialization. This wasn’t a problem for me because I was athletic from a young age, so that worked to my advantage, but a lot of parents aren’t cognizant of this. Parents want to homeschool their kids for the wrong reasons, like they don’t want their kids to learn about evolution; that’s terrible.

Here’s where I see an ideal school heading, hopefully in the next 5 years or so. The actual physical size of the school will shrink. The types of spaces present will become areas where kids need to socialize—for example the gym. There’s going to be a blend of physical schooling and online virtual schools. This will help democratize education because kids will be able to get the best education from the best teachers around the world. This is similar to what Mega Study is doing in Korea. The teacher’s role transforms from a one-way faucet of information into a manager and curator education. At some point, they’ll use newer technology—think iPads—to track analytics. The parents will also have access to the analytics to see how the kids progress. There are companies working on this right now, but this is where it’s headed. I think technological tracking of educational analytics and advancement plus the use of powerful gaming mechanics to make it engaging is what I see the ideal future of the school becoming.

Q: Do you think the Khan Academy is the right model?

I think the videos are a little bit archaic. I think there will be an evolution into a much richer multimedia experience. Beyond video, there will be games and interactive experiences.

Q: Is this the gap you’re filling in with your startup?

Yes. My mission is to change the world by changing education. I love games and I think it’s how education will be transformed.

Q: I recently read an article about studying how people might focus on memorization, while others will link it to existing knowledge. What approach did you take?

This gets interesting because there’s some application to neuroscience here. There’s a principle called the “binding principle” which states if you’re trying to learn new information, your brain retains it if you have a previous cognitive schema or memory to bind the new information to. Let’s use kids an example: let’s say you’re about to teach your kids a new lesson, have them create an advanced organizer. This organizer is a diagram or set of diagrams of what the student already knows about this topic. As you teach them the new information, they can think about it in the context of what they already know and they can make mental links to their existing knowledge. It increases learning effectiveness significantly.

Q: What’s the name of your startup and what are you building?

The startup is called Airy Labs and we make social learning games for young children. The idea is that educational games mostly suck and we want to make them fun. I see games as these enormous opportunities for learning because games are simply abstract rules based on new systems. We want to make massively popular games that tens of millions of kids will play and the parents will actually support it. We’re trying to align the parents’ and children’s interests.

Most games we’re setting up now are learning agnostic. I think we can teach anything with games, and we’ll start off with math, English, biology, and memory training. Some parents have e-mailed asking about anti-bullying conflict resolution type of games. A leader from a youth golf organization e-mailed and there’s a lot of etiquette that we can teach there, for example.

We want to be the Zynga of games, but on the long-term act more like Disney where we have a strong brand that parents trust and kids love using. I want to build a larger scale business around making learning fun.

Q: How many games are working on now? What language are you using to build this? How will the games look and feel?

We’re in the prototyping stage right now. We’ll aim to release something within 6 months. Those decisions are still up in the air, but right now we’re starting with Corona SDK (Lua). This was a fairly impulsive decision, so it might change.

Mostly, we’re trying to encourage social pressure to play and learn. That’s the social part that is exciting. We’ll have 2d or 3d vector graphics as part of it, we want to have a high bar visually.

Q: You said it was scary to drop out, since you have dropped out have there been any low points?

The fundraising was stressful up until the end because I was doing it alone. It eventually got finished, but there’s enormous trust placed in me because they invest in me. Now that it’s done, I have to deliver and not screw things up. That’s my next goal: not screwing things up! I have to pay back that trust.

There were people who turned me down, and my personal opinion is I don’t think it’s a smart decision. You just ignore that and move on.

Q: What’s your biggest challenge right now?

The single most challenging thing is hiring good designers. I have an opinion that great designers are very rare. There are lots of mediocre designers, but finding the top designers is difficult.

If you enjoyed reading excerpts from this interview, you’ll enjoy reading Startups Open Sourced.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

mieses July 28, 2011 at 4:11 pm

Did you ever think about getting a degree in something that does not come easy to you, e.g., Philosophy or Art History? If you did consider it, then why did you decide against it?

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JetSpygul January 23, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Why the heck would you get a degree that is COMPLETELY unrelated to what you want to do? It says very clearly that he wanted to become a biologist (before that goal changed to starting a company) so why waste time getting random degrees for no reason? Think before you say things.

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Laran July 28, 2011 at 5:30 pm

How hard was it for you socially to continuously skip grades and move ahead of your friends?

I have two minds about stories of exceptional achievement such as yours. On one hand, as you said, the current educational model is broken. The assembly line analogy is accurate. Students should progress at their own pace. And if it only takes them 3 years to complete 12 years worth of work, good for them!

On the other hand, bucking the norm and shooting ahead voids much of the social contract around education. For example, you might academically be on par with kids twice your age, but if you want to join the baseball team, you’ll likely have much less in common with your teammates.

I’d really like to know more about your experiences from a social perspective given your rapid progression through school.

Good luck on the new venture!

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Susan Critelli August 2, 2011 at 12:32 pm

@laran, I skipped one grade after already being younger because of making the birthday cutoff and found it to be socially devastating. It was difficult enough to be 12 in the 9th grade, never mind 12 in college. Socially hard to graduate high school at 16, never mind 3 BS degrees at 16.

I don’t think I thought much about the social consequences until many years later, though. You could ask him this question now and he will have a different answer than he will have in 40 years.

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Michael White July 28, 2011 at 5:54 pm

@mieses

Why do you think Andrew would have difficulty with Philosophy or Art History? I’d say it’s rather unlikely that there’s anything that wouldn’t come easy to him, at least not any intellectual pursuit.

The following Paul Graham quote comes to mind: “Try this thought experiment. A dictator takes over the US and sends all the professors to re-education camps. The physicists are told they have to learn how to write academic articles about French literature, and the French literature professors are told they have to learn how to write original physics papers. If they fail, they’ll be shot. Which group is more worried?”

http://www.paulgraham.com/resay.html

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Quinn DuPont July 28, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Gosh, a surprise that *Paul Graham* thinks that science is more difficult than humanities. The only sensible criteria would be socio-economic: i.e., what discipline attracts more people? (thus, on average, having the larger share of the “smartest” people). Neither discipline is inherently “harder” than the other at an elite level (which, it should be pointed out, Hsu never reached… not even close).

And, I think the question probes a common perception about “genius”—it’s usually pretty intellectually shallow, almost an autism. Rarely, like really really rarely, does genius come in the form of a rounded intellect or personality (someone like Noam Chomsky might be an example of this rare intellect).

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Vytautas 'brain5ide' Aukstikalnis July 29, 2011 at 3:13 am

I don’t think Paul Graham thinks that science is more difficult than humanities. Just having worked in a more confined environment(science) for a while it’s easier to jump in to a less confined environment (humanities) than the other way around. The beginners stress level just differs.

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Chuck July 28, 2011 at 6:05 pm

mini-rant -> I suspect the ‘social contract’ of school is a myth. In other cultures, parents and community are the primary source of education in social norms and ‘school’ is about education in academic subjects. Having home schooled kids I can assure you that their social education can be better met by church, community, and public service projects than by attempting to figure out how to play the popularity game. <- end mini-rant

Some things however actually aren't wrong with public education, the exemplar is that learning in a group is better than learning singularly. The reasoning is pretty straight forward, groups have different brains that are each getting the information in the way that their brain processes it. These differences express as different insights, or different questions. By exploring those insights and questions in a group context, everyon in the group benefits from the diverse ways of thinking.

Often the 'problem' as expressed is that kids get left behind or get held back. The solution is to recognize that not all people have equal capacity for absorbing material and allowing the segregate accordingly without imposing social 'judgement' on them.

The key for success here is that the group does need to be grouped around the same level of competency. If members are more than a standard deviation ahead or behind those members should be in a different group. And that motion is certainly not possible in the public school system.

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DudeX July 28, 2011 at 8:03 pm

Hi Andrew,

Such an intelligent man as yourself would have asked at some point “what life is all about?” it would be great if you could share your thoughts.

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David Weekly July 28, 2011 at 8:10 pm

Andrew,

I’m so proud of you! Also, this story is now on the front page of Hacker News. :)

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lol July 28, 2011 at 9:54 pm

“Sarr scare”

I think he meant “SARS scare”

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Praveen July 29, 2011 at 12:57 am

“The goals I set for myself are slightly unrealistic because it helps me push the envelope and be more productive.” – I like this line. Nice interview.

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William Bennett July 29, 2011 at 1:19 am

mieses, he did not study biochemistry because it was easy. It’s not easy it’s hard. He studied it because it was his passion from an early age.

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Roy Marvelous | Cruisesurfingz July 29, 2011 at 3:42 am

I found school boring for me and it was only after finishing university where I learnt the joy of learning through games. I taught English for a while in Prague and this was definitely the approach I took – turning games like Sim City and Monopoly into English classes.

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stefan July 29, 2011 at 7:28 am

You are remarkable because you represent the fruits of diversity, tolerance and opportunity. In my time, when i finished high school calculus in 10th grade, I was a social pariah. The toll was high. You are not unique and people like you will increase in number.

When our society was more homogeneous and ‘right and wrong’ was based on simple visual cues, it was hard to excel without becoming disconnected because social connections were based ONLY on local events. The interconnectedness of our world and expanding the tolerance of diversity have allowed the child growing up in a common town, in many (but not all) places of the earth, the opportunity to transcend the local limitations without the pain and isolation and social stigma that comes from being a little different and following a different path.

Most animals and many humans on this earth still spend all of their day looking for food. The concept of goal setting is foreign when you have little control of your environment. You have a unique opportunity now to stand on your position and jump higher. Solve the dead end we have put ourselves in,

We think that giving people food, money and shelter will help. We feel good about ourselves for relieving their misery. But this simple action short circuits the brain-getting something for nothing devalues the something we give and trains the recipients to be an evolutionary dead end- it restricts their ingenuity, versatility, creativity and ultimately their ability to contribute to the advancement and evolution of our species. The solution to this problem is to attach real world benefits to achievements in learning/gaming. Yes, I said it, you should get money for getting more microsoft points, you should get food for solving puzzles in Civilization, you should earn resources (water, shelter,clothes,electricity) for your town for cooperative achievement in a team based games. You need to mass produce opportunities for self improvement in the virtual world to accommodate the billions of people for whom opportunity does not exist.

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a s July 30, 2011 at 5:31 am

I have a comment for Andrew:

You’ve accomplished some pretty amazing things in your short little life, and your startup has promise. I really do hope it contributes to revolutionizing education systems in the US (and possibly internationally?).

I only hope that you are also able to address some of the inequalities present in the way we educate our children. That is, I hope your startup doesn’t ultimately only appeal to upper-class families — families whose children likely already have access to much better educational resources than the average American. We need systems in place that promote equal access to education, not ones that amplify the disparities already in place.

Finally, although I don’t know how Airy Labs works, I hope you are able to incorporate avenues of learning aside from science/math/technology — such as literature, arts, and the promotion of teamwork/group learning. The author writes, ” I think I hold a little resentment to this day for how schools have degraded into a popularity contest rather than a place where we teach the next generation to build the next wave of innovative technologies.” Unfortunately, not everyone believes that the purpose of school is to build technology. That notion may fly in certain cultures (perhaps some Asian cultures), but the rest of the world requires much more. Many of the problems in the world today (and there are plenty to choose from) are not technological in nature. To truly create an education system for “everyone,” you’ll need to reach well beyond the tech crowd.

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Android guy January 12, 2012 at 6:53 am

What he talks about the current education system is correct. You don’t have any choice of what you learn. It needs to change, specially in the new age of mobile phones and gadgets. Education should be completely unlocked from the system currently we have.

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Touch screens September 7, 2012 at 10:37 pm

Seems quite a good achievement for such a young guy..

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yangxiangyu February 10, 2013 at 7:27 pm

I think your thought is very meaningful for Chinese education.

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yangxiangyu February 10, 2013 at 8:02 pm

You know, in china mainland, the inflexible education mode has been a big problem. As a student, you can not have your new ideas, you are not encouraged to create something new and you are just told to follow the forefathers. I think it is why we can not produce even one nobel prize winner.

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yangxiangyu February 12, 2013 at 11:25 pm

I will support your choice forever!

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yangxiangyu March 20, 2013 at 12:05 am

In the mainland of China, education has been a big problem in these years.

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yangxiangyu March 26, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Hi, Andrew! I’m a university student from the mainland of China. Next year, I will go to Galifornia for my graduate study. Can you leave your contact for me? It is really my honor if you can give me a hand.

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