By DAILY MAIL REPORTER
Tesca Fitzgerald will be heading off to grad school, but when she finally begins classes at the Georgia Institute of Technology, her classmates will be several years older than her. In college at age 12, Tesca just graduated from Portland State University and is on the fast track to receive her PhD in cognitive science and human robotic interaction by age 22. Her mom Ami Fitzgerald says its all down to their homeschooling that has allowed her daughters the freedom to study at their own speed. Her parents, Ami and Mark Fitzgerald began homeschooling all of their three daughters early on because they were being bullied. 'I guarantee, if you home school your kids for eight hours a day every day, they’ll be in college at age 12, too,' Ami told The Oregonian.
The girls worked through coursework in a summer that would take other students an entire year to understand. Tesca skipped middle school and high school and instead enrolled in college at the age of 12. That transition into college took some getting used to, Tesca says, both for herself and for her classmates, who were not used to the idea of a 12-year-old taking advanced math courses. 'It was a love/hate relationship,' she says. 'It was a great new class that I looked forward to, but I kept getting the same questions from students day after day.' By the end of the year, however, the novelty of her presence wore off, Tesca told The Times.
'Now, most people don’t say anything,' she adds. 'They think I’m 19 or 20, most of the time.' She says that she doesn't miss skipping out on the 'traditional high school experience.' 'I ask people about if they enjoyed high school or wish they had skipped it, and I get answers both ways,' Tesca says. 'I liked the way that things turned out for me, and I wouldn’t change anything if I could go back.' Tesca says she has always been drawn to computers, like her father, a computer programmer. 'There was always some computer or something around to play with,' she says. She says that she is especially excited to work with human-robotic interactions and wants to start studying cognitive science.
'It is something that I have always found fascinating,' she says. 'We will never fully understand how the brain works. It’s the kind of field that you could start learning and never get to the end of it because we don’t know, and it ties in closely to computer science and artificial intelligence.' She just graduated from Portland State University with honors in computer science and will pursue a doctorate in the same field at Georgia Tech for the next six years. She chose Georgia Tech because it offers a computer science specialty called interactive computing that will allow her to delve into cognitive science, neuroscience and other interdisciplinary arenas. 'My passion lies in finding new solutions to new problems,' she says. Not only is Ms. Fitzgerald a genius, but she also has a knack for artificial intelligence.
'It was because I wanted to do something different that nobody had done before.' At the age of 15-years-old, Fitzgerald worked 600 hours to create her own artificially intelligent robot who could make its own decisions and operate itself. Before that, Tesca also attended the coveted Google Science Fair as a keynote speaker in 2011. After building her mini-robot zenith, designers of the robotics program flew from Europe to meet with Tesca Fitzgerald to learn more on how she pushed the limits of their software to create such an exceptional feat. Her talent for computing showed early, thanks in part to an unusual home environment. Her parents, both with MBAs, worked at home a lot, half time for her trust-manager mom, Ami, full time for her self-taught database designer dad, Mark.
He had a lot of computers, enough that all three daughters could bang around on them from infancy and got one of their own as preschoolers. One scene from a plane, as recalled by Ami Fitzgerald: When Tesca was not yet 2, she and her mother took a flight, each with her own laptop, unusual for a toddler in the 1990s. While Ami worked, Tesca played a simple interactive game, appearing to deftly use the computer as she sucked on her pacifier. Other passengers gaped. At landing time, mother told daughter to shut down her computer, and she did. But Ami struggled to get hers off, even after she yanked out the battery pack. A flustered flight attendant insisted she shut it down. From the back of the plane, a chorus of voices shouted: 'Ask the baby.' Fitzgerald passed the laptop to Tesca, who did, indeed, turn it off.
'The whole back of the plane erupted,' Ami Fitzgerald says. The program Tesca played was a Reader Rabbit game designed to teach 4- to 6-year-olds letters, sounds and words. Her parents assumed she was just enjoying the goofy graphics and punching random keys. Tesca, not yet 3, said what any little sister might: 'My turn.' Then, to her mother's astonishment, 'She read and read and read. Every book you could put in front of her, she could read.' At age 2, with help only from Reader Rabbit, she had cracked the code. Dad, Mark, says he is proud of his daughter and everything she has accomplished. 'When your kid graduate from college, it’s always a proud moment,' he says. 'But the fact that they are going to grad school is also very inspiring for us. And the fact she is at such a young age too.'
But, he adds, watching Tesca graduate was a bittersweet moment.
'The trouble with having a girls a smart as her is that you have to see them advance a lot sooner than you were planning,' he laughs. 'You have to deal with it.'