|At age 16, Tesca Fitzgerald will graduate with honors Sunday from
Portland State University and head to a prestigious computer science
Ph.D. program. Those who know her well say she is unfailingly fun to be
around and always likes to try new things, whether tap dance, a new
route to the bus stop or stretching software past what its designers
thought were the limits. (Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian)
During her first week in college, in a discrete mathematics class at Portland Community College, Tesca Fitzgerald sat in the back of the room trying not to call attention to herself. A diligent student, she soon raised her hand and asked a question.
Every head in the room swiveled. Why such a childlike-voice in advanced college math?
The pint-size pony-tailed 12-year-old would go on to ace the class.
Now 16, the self-possessed teen from Tigard will graduate Sunday from Portland State University with honors in computer science. Oregon’s six other public universities will hold graduations Saturday and Monday.
After being heavily wooed by several of the nation’s top computer science programs, Fitzgerald is headed to Georgia Tech to earn her Ph.D. with a specialty in artificial intelligence.
Over and over, she has turned heads by quietly pushing the envelope to pull off intellectual feats. Explaining one of them, with a simplicity that explains many, she says, “It was because I wanted to do something different that nobody had done before.”
With her degree and know-how, Fitzgerald could easily have scored a high-paying job at her choice of Portland firms. Most of her fellow C.S. majors have done just that.
Her desire to stretch exploration of human and artificial intelligence explains her plans to instead move 2,600 miles from the parents and sisters she adores to spend six years or more earning a doctorate.
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.
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.
When older sister Tayt was 5, her teacher declared her ready to read and sent home easy picture books. On her first try, Tayt did well.
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.
On trips to and from Tayt’s school, Ami Fitzgerald would strap 3-year-old Tesca in her car seat and hand her second-grade books. The toddler greedily consumed them.
“That’s when I realized, ‘Huh, we’re going to have an issue,‘” Ami Fitzgerald says.
She was a successful certified trust and financial adviser with a full-time career. She had barely heard of home schooling and had no idea how to teach.
But super-bright Tayt was being bullied at school. Ultra-bright Tesca was so far off the charts no regular classroom would fit.
So Ami Fitzgerald became a home-schooling mom, a role she still plays for 13-year-old Tylise.
Tesca Fitzgerald has a prodigious ability to memorize, lightning-fast learning skills and a passion for cutting-edge computing, says her senior thesis adviser, associate computer science professor Bart Massey. But his star student says another factor helps explain her trajectory: robotics team.
With its zany atmosphere, novel challenges and reward for smart coding, robotics taught her how much fun she could have writing software as part of a team, she says.
Almost by chance, Tesca got to take part at age 5 in an organized robotics program that has thousands of mostly middle-school-age Oregonians building and programming rudimentary robots for table-top contests each year.
Tayt was invited to help form a team. Tesca tagged along. On Day One, the woman guiding the team asked Tesca, “Do you want to learn how to program the robot?” She never looked back.
“I was the lead programmer that year,” she says. “I loved the challenge, and I kept coming back to try to take it to the next level.” As a member of the FIRST LEGO League’s Fire-breathing Rubber Duckies, she programmed robots for seven years, culminating when she led the Duckies to the world competition as a 13-year-old PCC student.
Teams receive identical, easy-to-program kits. Tesca, naturally, found unprecedented ways to do more.
After reading 100 pages of technical background, Tesca found an out: She would write lots of programs to direct the robot’s movements in plain text programs that take up little room. She would write only one program in the bulky built-in visual language — one that could translate her text commands into the visual programming that was the only language the robot could understand.
Her team advanced to the international meet but was nearly disqualified there, Ami Fitzgerald says. “They didn’t think a 10-year-old could do that work. It was such a unique concept, even the (organizers) had never thought of it and were sure a grown-up must have come up with it.”
But the teen confidently made her case to 15 dubious adults. It helped that she is an unusually poised public speaker who has, among other things, helped keynote a major Google science fair event in New York City. Even so, she was asked to submit to a software exam and show her transcript before they relented.
Two years later, she reached her mini-robot zenith: She spent 600-plus hours to write and perfect a complex artificial intelligence code so the robot could make its own decisions and operate itself. Designers of the robotics program flew in from Europe and talked to her for hours about how she pushed their software beyond what any had imagined possible.
“These adults learned from someone who had tested their software to the absolute limit,” Ami Fitzgerald says.
Massey, the honors thesis adviser, says Tesca Fitzgerald is still enlightening her elders. The speed, versatility and creativity she’s exhibited in creating a program to test-drive user interfaces, researching machine learning logarithms and other projects have wowed people more than twice her age, he says.
“That’s how it should be with your best undergraduates. By the end, they’re teaching you stuff.”