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Engineering prodigies among few enrolled at U of I

If you think studying biochemical engineering sounds hard, try sitting next to a 10-year-old in class.

A family of four prodigies—ages 10 through 16—is attending the University of Iowa this year. The oldest daughter, Gohar Manzar, 16, is a doctoral student in biochemical engineering. Her younger siblings, Bushra, 12, Shahid, 11, and Zahid, 10, are biochemical engineering undergraduates.

“They have an exam on Tuesday, calculus,” mother Surayya Manzar said.

Iowa’s public universities have 89 students 16 or younger enrolled in full-time or part-time classes this fall. The youngest Manzars are among only a handful of extremely young students the U of I has admitted in the past 20 years, Admissions Director Michael Barron said.

Many accelerated students like the Manzars, whose parents taught them at home, can’t be admitted through standard criteria, such as grades or class rank, Barron said. These students must show through standardized tests they are competent in 15 core subject areas.

“You have a sense of special responsibility when compiling that academic record for someone so talented,” he said.

In many ways, the Manzars are normal kids: They carve jack-o-lanterns, play the video game Spore and occasionally misbehave. Bushra smiles, showing braces, as she describes getting to know other engineering students.

“We talk about how our classes are going and how big our families are,” she said. “We have made some friends.”

Zahid, who at 10 is half the age of many U of I students, said he’s looking forward to visiting the new recreation center, with a pool and climbing wall. “I hear other students talking about the cool sports place and I think I’d like to go,” he said.

The Manzars moved around the country for father Khalid Manzar’s medical training before settling in Clinton in 2002. Gohar attended first grade there, but the family decided home schooling was a better option, according to an article in the Daily Iowan newspaper.

“Home schooling isn’t for everyone,” Gohar told the Daily Iowan. “It really suited me, because I was able to go at my own pace and learn what I wanted to learn.”

In addition to the four children enrolled at the U of I, the Manzars have a 14-year-old daughter, Johar, who is in medical school in the Caribbean, and two young boys, Hamid, 7, and Abid, 4.

The Manzar children are American citizens, but their parents are from India. In 2006, Khalid’s and Surayya’s American green cards were revoked and the family was forced to leave Clinton, Surayya said. The parents and five youngest children went back to India, while Gohar and Johar earned undergraduate degrees at the University of Texas-Arlington.

“My husband is living in Canada. He works there as a cardiologist,” said Surayya, who is in Iowa on a visitor’s visa. “It’s very difficult, but I’m staying here with my kids.”

The Manzar children have drawn attention from their engineering peers.

“It’s really amazing that they know so much at such a young age because you know they will have such a bright future,” said Matthew Boddicker, a third-year electrical engineering student from Tipton. “I’m kind of jealous.”

The U of I reported 49 students 16 and younger are attending the U of I this semester. Of these students, 28 are 15- and 16-year-olds taking fewer than 12 credits. Most of these are high school students picking up college credits. Another 12 16-year-olds are taking 13 or more credit hours. The remaining nine students are under age 15.

Iowa State University has 30 students 16 or younger taking classes this fall. Of those, 20 are 16 years old, seven are 15 years old and three are 14. Of the total, only five are seeking degrees.

The University of Northern Iowa has nine 16-year-olds enrolled this fall on a part-time basis and one 16-year-old high school graduate studying computer science full time.

College students as young as the youngest Manzars are unique, said Maureen Marron, an administrator for the Institute for Research and Policy on Acceleration in the UI Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development.

“This type of acceleration is unusual,” Marron said.

Research done on accelerated students challenges the perception that they are social misfits, she said. “These kids do well academically, socially and professionally,” Marron said. “Students not accelerated to the extent they needed to be did have social problems.

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