Elementary student taking college calculus after passing ACT: 'He didn't even study'

Tyler Spangler, a sixth-grade student from Pennsylvania, is enrolled in a calculus with an analytic geometry course at Penn State York, which he attends in the evenings after elementary school. (Photo credit: Barbara Spangler) 

A 12-year-old boy goes to elementary school by day and attends a college calculus classby night.

Tyler Spangler, a sixth-grade student in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, didn't start forming sentences until he was close to five, but from an early age, he had a gift for numbers.

“At 2, maybe 2-and-a-half years old, he would be doing addition and subtraction with three-digit numbers on his own. You'd ask him and he'd immediately tell you what the answer was. It just amazed me, but he wouldn't talk,” Tyler's mother, Barbara Spangler, said.

Barbara, who said she made it up to calculus in her own schooling, believes Tyler's incredible knack for numbers was really a “God-given gift.”

Tyler began his foray into calculus with an analytic geometry course this week at the Penn State York campus. He goes to his college class in the evenings Monday through Thursday after elementary school.

During the day, he attends St. Joseph's School in Dallastown, a Catholic school with classes for children in preschool through sixth grade, where he does his “own thing” during math class.

Tyler's mother recognized his gift for mathematics early on. She previously had him go through classes at John Hopkins University and hired tutors to help fulfill his yearning to learn, since he was starting to get “bored” with his regular elementary school math lessons.

By the end of third grade he was already doing algebra, she said.

“In kindergarten, they thought he was autistic, and I said, 'No, he's not. He's just focused on math.' And I had him tested by a psychiatrist, and he wasn't,” Barbara explained. “He just had a high IQ, and he was focused on the math.”

Tyler's gift for numbers eventually led his mother to suggest he take the ACT, a standardized test used for college admissions, to “get a baseline” idea of where to focus in his studies.

“He didn't even study. He went in and took the test, and he passed it,” she said.

This led Barbara to the idea of Tyler enrolling in a college-level course at Penn State. Within three weeks of applying, she said they received an email from the school saying, “Congratulations, Tyler! You're now a Penn State student.”

While high school students sometimes take college classes, the process of dual-enrollment for a 12-year-old was a bit more involved, she said. Penn State York's director of enrollment services was at first a little apprehensive about his young age, so Barbara and Tyler went to meet with him, and Tyler took a placement test.

“He placed in the highest category of math that you can do a placement test for,” Barbara said.

Tyler said he was “more excited than nervous” to start the calculus with analytic geometry course.

The students in his calculus class range in age from 18 to 21, pursing fields like physics and biology. Tyler's mother said the other students don't see him as “this little kid,” but instead as a peer who can perform on the same level of math as them.

Tyler's professor said he was “happy” to teach the 12-year-old, who actually gets excited to learn math, compared to other students he's taught who are there simply because they're required to take the course, Barbara explained.

When he's not in school, Tyler enjoys reading, mostly “non-fiction.” He plays the piano, and is in the percussion in the York Junior Symphony Orchestra. Next year, his mother said he wants to try out for the marching band.

Tyler is still weighing his options on what he wants to do when he grows up — but he's most interested in the prospect of being a mathematician, physicist, pilot or “entrepreneur and CEO of his own company,” his mother said.

For a 12-year-old taking college-level calculus, the sky seems to be the limit.

“He surprises me all the time,” she gushed.

This story was reported from Los Angeles.