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The Academic Journey of Daniel Liu

Daniel and his family

Daniel, mom and dadBy Kevin Merrill

More than 80 Ottawa Hills eighth graders traveled to Washington, D.C., this week as part of the annual class trip. Missing from that peer group was Daniel Liu, who started kindergarten with them in 2010. But Daniel already has been to Washington. In fact, he’s been inside the White House and met President Obama.
 
Not much has followed a traditional script for 13-year-old Daniel. He will graduate from Ottawa Hills May 30 with nearly 100 college credits – and transfer many of those to a new college he plans to start this fall. For Daniel and his family, his educational journey – which over the last eight years saw him skip four grades, publish three scientific articles in professional journals, win a national chemistry contest at age 10, and excel academically unlike any other student in Ottawa Hills history – is about to begin a new chapter.

Finding Ottawa Hills

Born in Philadelphia on June 3, 2005, Daniel and his family moved to Perrysburg in 2006. His father, Dr. Chun-Yu Liu, had recently graduated with his medical degree in dentistry from the University of Pennsylvania and first joined a dental practice in Toledo before buying his own practice in Swanton. Daniel’s mother, Chia-Chi Lee, stayed at home with her son. Both laugh at the suggestion that Daniel inherited any of his intelligence from them.

As with most prodigies, Daniel’s intellectual gifts were evident from an early age. He taught himself the alphabet by age 1 from interacting with a toy, began reading and then devouring books by age 2, and learned to read music by himself while practicing on a toy piano.

Daniel at the White HouseWhen it came time to find a school, the family went shopping. Already knowing Daniel had special talents, they wanted more than just a school; they were seeking a partner in his education. Based upon interactions they had while touring Ottawa Hills Elementary School, they chose the district and bought a home in the Village in 2009. By 2010, Daniel was going to kindergarten.

No one in the district was more integral to identifying and nurturing Daniel’s gifts than Rosalice Manlove, the former director of curriculum and instruction who retired in 2016.

“His parents were so trusting of the school district. I felt this huge personal responsibility to make sure we provided every opportunity we could for him to accelerate and grow and meet his academic needs,” she said. When Mrs. Manlove retired, among her final responsibilities was to update Daniel’s education plan, which would guide his K-12 academic career through the end of this month.

Creating and Working a Plan

It didn’t take long for the district to realize Daniel was not the average gifted student. Mrs. Manlove recalls receiving a call from Daniel’s kindergarten teacher about a student with exceptional ability. Daniel was drawing cells and labeling their parts.

That phone call began an intensive, multi-year effort that involved gifted-learning experts from the University of Toledo, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, and the district. Working with Mrs. Manlove and Daniel’s parents, this group, which expanded to include teachers, met regularly to review his progress, set new goals, and track his social and academic development.

Daniel preparing to meet President Obama“We knew he was extremely gifted and that we would need to have a plan in place,” Mrs. Manlove said. “We were forging new territory. Most schools don’t have a student quite like Daniel.”

First, the group accelerated Daniel by subject, starting with math and science – two areas where his abilities were most advanced. Subject acceleration was followed by grade acceleration (Daniel essentially skipped grades 2, 4, 6 and 8). By the fall of 2013, eight-year-old Daniel would be picked up from elementary school and driven by his mom to the high school, where he was enrolled in an Honors geometry class taught by Tim Adkins.

“Mrs. Manlove was always planning about two to three years ahead and we met every couple of months,” Dr. Liu said. “Every time we came, there were always four other people in the room. We were always, like, ‘Wow.’”

The attention given to Daniel’s social development is what the family now appreciates the most. “We would meet next year’s teachers ahead of time, so they could meet Daniel,” Dr. Liu said. In addition, the district sought mentors to smooth classroom transitions and seated Daniel in classes next to hand-picked students who they knew would take an interest in his well-being. “All of that helped him to learn the environment more quickly so he didn’t feel lonely and so other kids didn’t see him differently,” Dr. Liu said.

“We wanted to make sure he could get along with other people, to make sure he was socially capable,” Ms. Lee said. “We were concerned about his future and how he could get along with other people. It’s not enough for him to learn something quickly; we wanted to make sure he was ready for the next step,” Dr. Liu added.

Daniel winning chemistry contestTransitioning to High School

The Honors geometry class began a two-year period where Daniel would be an all-day student at the Junior/Senior High School, even though he was only 8. He took a mix of Honors, Advanced Placement, and standard courses, sprinkled in with classes at the University of Toledo. The goal was to challenge his intellectual curiosity while earning credits for graduation.

Outside his life at Ottawa Hills, Daniel spent three years from 2012 to 2015 playing cello in a youth orchestra at Oberlin College. Summers were spent at math and science camps, including the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, which specializes in supporting profoundly intelligent young people. “I’ve been dragging them into everything,” Daniel said of his parents. Except for last summer, when they took a trip to Florida’s Disney World to see the then-new Toy Story exhibit.

He also found time to study for the 2015 national “You Be The Chemist Challenge.” Nineteen days after his 10th birthday, Daniel won the event – and $10,000. He beat nearly 40,000 other students and became the event’s youngest-ever champion. Because of that accomplishment, he was invited the following April to the White House, where he and the other students met President Obama and participated in a science fair-like event inside and on the grounds of the White House.

At the same time as he was taking Honors geometry, Daniel taught himself algebra 1. So the district sent him home with an algebra 2 textbook over the summer of 2014, with the plan that he would take a pre-calculus course in the fall with high school math teacher Joan Keckler. Most of her students score between 10 and 30 percent on the early fall pre-test. Daniel scored a 91. “She gets two or three weeks in and she’s like, he knows this stuff,” said Tony Torio, a high school math teacher. It seems that after finishing the algebra 2 book, Daniel started reading the pre-calculus book.

Quiz Bowl Team“He was profoundly gifted with a mind that worked well beyond anything I could imagine. If he saw it, heard it, read it – he had it. It was there,” Mrs. Manlove recalled.

So, how does he do it? Learn so much information so quickly? Obviously, his brain works differently. It absorbs and retains information far more efficiently. “I usually read stuff twice, just to get a second pass. The first time through it, I pick up what I can,” Daniel said. “On the second time, I can sort of jump over those parts I know and focus on the stuff I didn’t pick up the first time.”

And then it just sticks? “Most of the time,” he said.

With precalculus no longer a viable option, Daniel was moved into Mr. Torio’s AP Stats course, which was being offered for the first time. “My students were wonderful. They embraced him,” Mr. Torio said. “I knew he was going to ask me questions I couldn’t answer until the next day. I was barely able to keep up with him.”

“He came to my office three times to get a copy of the textbook, but we kept missing each other. He was so excited. His first AP class!” Mr. Torio said. “When we do finally connect on Monday, he says that since he wasn’t able to get a copy of the textbook from me, he had enrolled in an online AP stats class.”

And so over the weekend, nine-year-old Daniel was already ahead of the rest of the class, which was just then finishing chapter one. “I asked him to come in after school and I gave him three quizzes. He burned right through and gets fives (the highest possible) on all of them,” Mr. Torio said. By year’s end, Daniel would win the AP Stats class’ “Most Outstanding Student Award.”

“His enthusiasm was unrivaled,” Mr. Torio said. “To him, learning was just having ‘fun.’ For Daniel, it’s learning – that’s his recreation.”

Daniel with 2019 quiz bowl teamEven though he now spends all his time at the University of Toledo, Daniel still participated in two school events: the Quiz Bowl Team and Science Olympiad. He joined the Quiz Bowl team during the 2015-2016 school year and was a key contributor over the next four. His active status as an enrolled high school student has allowed him to participate.

“If there’s ever an extracurricular activity made for a kid like Daniel, it’s Quiz Bowl,” said Mr. Torio, who also coaches the team. “In my whole career, I’ve never seen anything like him. I’ve seen smart kids, but this is an entirely different level.”

Daniel was a member of the OH 2018 national Quiz Bowl championship team and this year’s runner-up team. (It was Coach Torio that Daniel selected to join him on stage this month at the “I Make A Difference” breakfast. The breakfast is organized annually by the ESC of Lake Erie West to honor 20 students throughout the region and the teachers who had an impact in their lives.)

High School and Introduction to UT

It was Mr. Torio and Mr. Adkins who first opened doors for Daniel at the University of Toledo. Both had earned degrees from the University, and used their connections with the Mathematics Department there to create an interesting opportunity for Daniel. The Putnam Competition is the preeminent mathematics competition for undergraduates in the United States and Canada.  With help from professors and graduate students, a group of college students meets weekly during evenings to prepare for this exceptionally challenging test. Mr. Torio and Mr. Adkins arranged for Daniel to join them. 

That year, 2015-2016, was Daniel’s only full year taking classes at Ottawa Hills High School. A freshman at 10, he spent up to four periods each day taking AP Physics and AP Calculus from Mr. Adkins, classes normally taken by talented seniors.

Daniel with Science medals“I enjoyed having Daniel back in my room for advanced coursework,” said Mr. Adkins. “He had been accelerated through so many earlier classes, I thought it was important to challenge him by providing a deeper, enriching experience as well. I remember him bringing in those problems on Tuesday mornings from his Putnam sessions the night before. He was always so excited and eager to learn. Our start time was 7:15 a.m. and Daniel would arrive at 7. He’d have arrived at 6:45 if the doors were unlocked that early.”

For the 2016-2017 school year, Daniel spent his mornings at University of Toledo, taking classes that included Organic Chemistry and Multivariable Calculus. He came to the high school for afternoons, where his schedule included teacher Jeremy Nixon’s AP Biology class (without having taken the normal honors biology prerequisite). Independently, Daniel prepared for the calculus-based AP Physics C Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism tests.

By the fall of 2017, he was attending the University of Toledo full time.  As a high-school junior, his course load included Physical Chemistry, Cell Biology and Complex Variables.

At that point, the nurturing role assumed first by the district passed to the University of Toledo, which also guided and embraced Daniel. As the youngest student on the campus, he always felt at home, whether serving as assistant principal cellist in the university orchestra, taking classes with much-older students, or working alongside “colleagues” in the university lab. (Daniel took a chemistry class with Assistant Professor Michael Young. By 2017, they were colleagues working in a lab.)

“While this is highly unusual, Daniel has unusual talent and great support from his parents,” Dr. Young, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, told the UTNews last year. “He has already taken most of the junior-level course work in the chemistry program. While he doesn’t have the emotional maturity or physical stature of an older student, he is intellectually advanced compared to his peers.”

Daniel at Quiz Bowl

With Dr. Young and Dr. Mohit Kapoor, a postdoctoral researcher in medicinal and sustainable chemistry, the trio began conducting research. The result of one such effort created a chemical reaction that resulted in a faster, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly way to make pharmaceutical drugs and agrochemicals, such as pesticides and herbicides, according to the university. In 2018, the team’s research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. UT has filed a provisional patent on the work, and the team is looking to market to pharmaceutical companies that make generic drugs, according to the university.

Culmination of the Plan

From the earliest days of planning, the goal was for Daniel to graduate high school at age 13. That mission is already accomplished, and becomes official May 30 during commencement ceremonies.

“It was important to his parents and Daniel that he receives a diploma from Ottawa Hills,” Mrs. Manlove said. “Once he was involved in some of the clubs, that socializing and interaction gave him a sense of belonging. He was so young, but he showed the ability to interact with and be a part of the junior/senior high culture. Every plan we put in place from that point on was designed not only to meet his academic needs, but also to ensure he was available to participate in these activities.”

“I have never, ever worked with anyone like Daniel, and most people won’t. Most schools won’t,” Mrs. Manlove said. “He’s unique in his giftedness. My goal was always to make sure he was happy in what he was doing, that he wanted the plans we were putting in place.”

Next Steps

Daniel with Bill NyeDaniel’s busy schedule leaves little time for distractions. He does not own a phone (his choice), rarely if ever watches TV (last show watched was the Super Bowl and the occasional Food Channel show), doesn’t go to the movies (“I don't watch movies because I don't want to limit my imagination to what is shown on screen,” Daniel said, noting that the last one seen was “Toy Story 3” in 2010), nor does he play video games, with one catch: he does play games that he designs.

As for college, he plans to study chemistry and probably will pursue a joined MD-PhD. Degree.

Daniel appreciates the go-slow approach his parents chose for him, and the chance it gave to have a traditional, if modified, high school experience. “I wanted to have as much of a high school experience as I could. I pretty much sped through everything. I wanted to have a real school experience, even if I’m not going to be taking the same classes as everyone. Just be able to be here for four years and experience it,” Daniel said.

Added Daniel: “I’ll miss the people I’ve met along the way and everyone who has been here to help me out. The people here made the difference between Ottawa Hills and someplace else that may not have been able to give a customized experience.”





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