For 11-year-old Math Prodigy, 2 Plus 2 Equals 'Super-gifted'

At first glance, 11-year-old Aviel Boag's room looks quite typical: a few posters on the wall, shelves full of textbooks and a desk. Only the dry-erase board at the door reveals that something is different here. Among various reminders, one's eye rests on an unsolved mathematical equation.

"That's okay," Aviel says. "I haven't managed to solve it either. Sometimes, when I'm bored, I like to play around with it."

While his classmates spend six hours a week in math lessons at the Ma'ayan school in Yavne, Boag attends a program which he started in last year. Aimed at outstanding math students, the program is run jointly by the Israel Center for the Advancement of the Mathematical Sciences and Bar-Ilan University. The other participants are four years older than Boag. Next year, when they reach 10th grade, they will do their math matriculation exam at the highest level; some will go on to do their bachelor's degree, postponing their military service by special arrangement with the Israel Defense Forces.

Boag also wants to take the exam, but his mother, Alona, says that when she checked into that possibility with the Education Ministry's department for gifted children, she was told not to rush and to call back next year. In any case, children are not usually permitted to take the matriculation test before the ninth grade.

"I'm not worried," she says. "In the end the Education Ministry will also understand that there is no point in Aviel waiting three years to be tested."

Aviel Boag's interest in math began at a young age, when he took a pocket calculator to school and worked on his own problems, such as finding the square root of 99999999. In the first grade, his parents, Alona and Amir Boag, reached an agreement with the teacher that while the rest of the class participated in the regular lesson, their son could study from more challenging workbooks so he would not be bored. Within two months, he was studying math with third-graders; a year later, he was studying with fifth-graders.

The Education Ministry has classified Boag as being at the highest level of giftedness. Once a week, such youngsters are entitled to receive enrichment classes.

Boag goes to Bar-Ilan for his special program, which is also held in some 20 other locales around the country. Every math lesson lasts about four hours, and mainly focuses on analytical geometry and trigonometry. At the end of each year of the three-year program, students are tested to determine whether they should be allowed to continue. Boag notes that last year, when he started, there were 30 students; now only about half remain.

"Sometimes the older kids bother me a little. They take my notebook or textbook and give it back later. But I have a way of getting back at them: I invent equations that can't be solved. I don't feel they know math better than I do," he explains.

"The program is for the upper echelon of [gifted] youths - the ones we want to be part of the scientific future of Israel," says Prof. Zvi Arad, former rector and president of Bar-Ilan University, who founded the program 25 years ago together with Prof. Bernard Pinchuk. Arad is now president of Netanya Academic College.

Arad adds that in his experience, about 300 children from the program are tested at the end of the 10th grade, and receive an average grade of 98. Of those, two-thirds go on to pursue a bachelor's degree in math and continue to excel. However, "there aren't many students as young as Aviel," Arad notes.

Aviel's father, Amir, is a professor at the school of electrical engineering at Tel Aviv University; his mother, Alona, is an electronics engineer. Both immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union in the 1970s and immediately skipped a grade. Aviel's little sister, Elia, is also a year ahead of her grade level in math.

"From a young age it was clear that Aviel had outstanding math ability, but we did not want to cut him off from his friends and age group, so we did not even think about him skipping a grade," Amir Boag says, adding that he and his wife do not want to push the youngster too much. "The wise thing to do is to help him develop his talent."

The Education Ministry says 271 students received permission last year to be tested early, mainly in math and computer science, and most take advantage of the opportunity in ninth grade. To be tested earlier a child has to be recognized as "super-gifted." However, tools for making such an assessment are still being developed, according to the ministry.

Meanwhile, Boag says that while his peers admire his math talent, they treat him like any other boy their age: "They don't really envy me. They know that an answer to an exercise in the Bar-Ilan [program] can be two pages long." His other grades, he says, are okay - in the range of 95 to 100. His second-favorite class is gym.

At present his classmates are studying decimals, but, he adds, "I studied that when I was in kindergarten. Sometimes I peek at what they are doing, but it's better to use my time for homework for the Bar-Ilan program. During tests, when the teacher's not looking, they try to ask me for the answers."

Moti Milrod