Ryan Newton, a computer science professor at Purdue University, began taking IMACS university-level mathematics and computer science classes the summer before sixth grade. After many years in IMACS, Ryan graduated college in three years, earned a PhD in computer science from MIT, and pursued an academic career in programming languages research. He also leads a development team at Meta, a position he began after Meta acquired his startup. In today’s blog post, Ryan shares how his IMACS background laid the foundation for his current success.
I was enrolled at IMACS and its predecessor, MEGSSS, from the summer before sixth grade until graduating high school: 1992 through 1999. IMACS played a unique, formative role for me — it set the direction of my computer science career! Now I’m a professor of Computer Science and Electrical/Computer Engineering at Purdue University. I also lead a team I formed at Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook).
The first thing to understand about IMACS is that they teach both math and computer science differently from any other K-12 education program out there. Traditional primary schools teach math as a set of algorithms to memorize. IMACS teaches the mathematician’s mathematics, leading students to ask and answer questions about what lies deeper. Beneath the usual numbers and arithmetic, students are led to discover set theory and abstract algebra — topics that they normally wouldn’t encounter until college, and typically even then not unless they major in math.
So how did IMACS set the direction of my computing career? Well, their approach to teaching computing is likewise unique. IMACS co-founders have written their own textbooks that teach programming with an eye to the essential principles behind programming languages. Their more advanced courses include college material on programming theory. After being introduced to these concepts in IMACS, I became obsessed with this line of work and it wasn’t long before the academic field of programming languages became my own research area. As an undergraduate, I worked closely with Professor Daniel P. Friedman, a friend and fan of IMACS, who wrote a textbook I completed while at IMACS. As a result, my name was in the next edition of that same book for giving feedback and developing exercises as an early reader. IMACS thus formed the connection that led to my undergraduate research area, which itself led to my Ph.D. research at MIT.
After being introduced to [computer science] in IMACS, I became obsessed with this line of work.
But what has IMACS done for me recently? First, they took everything online. I’ve watched my own children work with their online materials, which form a more interactive, more engaging version of everything that was already great about the curriculum. As an educator myself, I am especially impressed with the way that abstract concepts are reified in intuitive web-based visualizations. This activates learners of a tinkering style, who light up when they can directly manipulate the objects of study, which are no longer static on a page. Impressively, IMACS has done this not only with computing concepts (already tinkerer-friendly), but with the fundamental mathematical material as well.
Whether I’m teaching, directing research, or forming startups and leading teams within Big Tech companies, I’ll always carry with me the education I received at IMACS and the curiosity it fostered as I continue on the path (and subject matter area!) that IMACS set me onto.