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High School Researcher Named Presidential Scholar

Prof Aaron Stump and Colin McDonald posing for picture during recent cedille meeting

Colin McDonald, a recently-graduated homeschooled high-school student, was recognized this past May as one of 161 Presidential Scholar for 2019. "Of the 3.6 million students expected to graduate from high school this year, more than 5,200 candidates qualified for the 2019 awards determined by outstanding performance on the College Board SAT and ACT exams or through nominations made by Chief State School Officers, other partner recognition organizations and the National YoungArts Foundation's nationwide YoungArts™ competition."

"Colin has made many amazing contributions to our Cedille project, certainly far beyond the level we would expect even of a very strong high schooler, even an undergraduate. So we were thrilled but not surprised to learn he had been honored as a US Presidential Scholar. Colin has probably contributed now the most code of anyone to Cedille. Cedille is a new programming language with the ability to write mathematical proofs about the programs written in it. Colin has not just implemented many of the algorithms, he has also found subtle issues and proposed clever solutions to them. The whole Cedille team -- doctoral students, postdocs, and myself -- respect him very highly and value his opinions and contributions very much. We wish him the best for starting college, and hope he will return to the project on breaks!" (Prof. Aaron Stump)

We sat down with Colin recently for his take on his research at Iowa and on receiving such a prestigious award.

  1. How did you first get interested and involved with Prof. Stump’s Cedille research?

At the time we met, my sister was nannying for Prof. Stump’s family. He suggested courses I could take following my work on Android development. During the second semester of 2017-2018 he tutored me. He then offered me a spot on his research team.

  1. What was your mathematical and CS background before joining the CLC group at Iowa?

Mostly just self-taught, lots of Stack Overflow, followed online courses my older brother took, did the assignments, watched the videos. I was mostly teaching myself by reading things online: like introduction to languages. Once I could understand the syntax, I’d just mess around until I stopped getting errors.

  1. How would you describe your experience working with faculty, post-docs, and PhD students?

It was awesome, I thought. It was kind of great at showing me what the depth and breadth of computer science can be. I had not really considered much from the theoretical side before this and I really like that. It was eye-opening.

  1. You went to at least two conferences/workshop with the Cedille group, and even presented your work at Madison. What has stuck with you from those experiences “in academia?”

I really liked it. Especially the atmosphere of learning; the theoretical space that computer science has. It’s a huge subject. It was cool to see how many areas it contained. It was very impressive.

  1. What skills or experiences from your time working on this project would you say helped you become one of 161 US Presidential Scholars?

I guess it’s helped a lot with confidence because I know I have been working on this team and the other guys are mostly post-docs or doctoral students. And also it’s really given me a much deeper appreciation for academia itself; showing me the richness of it than I’d ever really seen before.

  1. Beyond this experience, what advice would you give high school students with regards to analytical or computational thinking? What other interests or activities gave you the proverbial “leg up”?

I am home-schooled so I’ve had a lot of experience teaching myself. I think that has helped me lot. Moving forward a lot of my education at this point will be teaching myself as well; in college and beyond.

  1. This prestigious award in hand, where will you be going next? Have you decided on a precise path in higher ed yet?

I will be attending Notre Dame this fall, majoring in Computer Science. I would like to pursue a Masters Degree and PhD if that is possible, going down the road. I really like the research and atmosphere of academia.

After a possible PhD, I would be most interested in research and teaching.

The way I came to see it, industry is kind of like when I was working on Android apps and the research is what I am doing now. It is not a perfect correspondence, but I really like the theory stuff. There will obviously be some industry positions that will have a lot of theoretical or teaching jobs that have more applied computer science.

  1. Any other comments?

I am appreciative of Prof. Stump for the time I have spent working here. It has been really great and has helped me to see a whole side of computer science I had not thought of.