Hogwarts for Hackers: Inside the Science and Tech School of Tomorrow

As a teenager in the early 90s, Peter Chu was obsessed with an online game called DikuMUD. He spent countless hours playing this Dungeons-and-Dragons-like computer creation, but playing wasn’t enough. He wanted to understand how the game worked and, more importantly, change the things he didn’t like about it. As luck would have it, DikuMUD was open source software, so he was free to download the code that underpinned the game and start hacking it — and that’s what he did.
The program was written in C — a language he didn’t know — and he didn’t really have much experience with any kind of programming. But he was in an environment where he had the time and resources to teach himself. He was a student at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, IMSA for short, a public live-in high school with a unique approach to education. Every Wednesday at IMSA, students are free to work on whatever they want — to follow their particular passions through self-directed study, internships, or other projects. Chu used his Wednesdays to hack DikuMUD.

“I had to learn what the programming language was, learn what a compiler was,” he remembers. “I found books on it and talked to upperclassmen. But basically had to learn it on my own.”

The IMSA Wednesdays are like Google’s “20 percent time” — only better. “At Google, 20 percent time is actually tacked on to the rest of your job. ” says Daniel Kador, another former IMSA student. “At IMSA, it really is built into your schedule.” And though Kador and other students admit that they spent more than a few Wednesdays just goofing off — as high school students so often do — they say the environment at IMSA ends up pushing many of them towards truly creative work. And it pays off.
After teaching himself to program at IMSA, Chu went on to the University of Illinois, where he worked on NCSA Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, following in the footsteps of fellow IMSA alums Robert and Michael McCool. And, eventually, he joined several other IMSA graduates as an early employee at PayPal, where he still works today.
Chu is just one of many tech success stories that have sprung from IMSA over the years (see sidebar, page two). Other IMSA alums have gone on to discover new solar systems, teach neurosurgery, and found such notable tech outfits as YouTube, Yelp, SparkNotes, and OK Cupid. And the spirit that moved Chu to teach himself programming is still very much alive and well. You can think of IMSA as a Hogwarts for Hackers.
IMSA sits on the outskirts of Chicago, in a little town called Aurora, Illinois. It feels more like a college than a high school (see images above). At the state-funded boarding school, the halls aren’t lined with lockers. Instead, you find chairs and couches, where students will plop down to type on their laptops — or catch an afternoon nap.
By Klint Finley
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