WINNERS of the Scott Aaronson Grant for Advanced Precollege STEM Education!

I’m thrilled to be able to interrupt your regular depressing programming for 100% happy news.

Some readers will remember that, back in September, I announced that an unnamed charitable foundation had asked my advice on how best to donate $250,000 for advanced precollege STEM education. So, just like the previous time I got such a request, from Jaan Tallinn’s Survival and Flourishing Fund, I decided to do a call for proposals on Shtetl-Optimized before passing along my recommendations.

I can now reveal that the generous foundation, this time around, was the Packard Foundation. Indeed, the idea and initial inquiries to me came directly from Dave Orr: the chair of the foundation, grandson of Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard, and (so I learned) longtime Shtetl-Optimized reader.

I can also now reveal the results. I was honored to get more than a dozen excellent applications. After carefully considering all of them, I passed along four finalists to the Packard Foundation, which preferred to award the entire allotment to a single program if possible. After more discussion and research, the Foundation then actually decided on two winners:

  • $225,000 for general support to PROMYS: the long-running, world-renowned summer math camp for high-school students, which (among other things) is in the process of launching a new branch in India. While I ended up at Canada/USA Mathcamp (which I supported in my first grant round) rather than PROMYS, I knew all about and admired PROMYS even back when I was the right age to attend it. I’m thrilled to be able to play a small role in its expansion.
  • $30,000 for general support to AddisCoder: the phenomenal program that introduces Ethiopian high-schoolers to programming and algorithms. AddisCoder was founded by UC Berkeley theoretical computer science professor and longtime friend-of-the-blog Jelani Nelson, and also received $30,000 in my first grant round. Jelani and his co-organizers will be pressing ahead with AddisCoder despite political conflict in Ethiopia including a recently-concluded civil war. I’m humbled if I can make even the tiniest difference.

Thanks so much to the Packard Foundation, and to Packard’s talented program officers, directors, and associates—especially Laura Sullivan, Jean Ries, and Prithi Trivedi—for their hard work to make this happen. Thanks so much also to everyone who applied. While I wish we could’ve funded everyone, I’ve learned a lot about programs to which I’d like to steer future support (other prospective benefactors: please email me!!), and to which I’d like to steer kids: my own, once they’re old enough, and other kids of my acquaintance.

I feel good that, in the tiny, underfunded world of accelerated STEM education, the $255,000 that Packard is donating will already make a difference. But of course, $255,000 is only a thousandth of $255 million, which is a thousandth of $255 billion. Perhaps I could earn the latter sort of sums, to donate to STEM education or any other cause, by (for example) starting my own cryptocurrency exchange. I hope my readers will forgive me for not having chosen that route, expected-utility-maximization arguments be damned.

21 Responses to “WINNERS of the Scott Aaronson Grant for Advanced Precollege STEM Education!”

  1. Great News Says:

    Dear Scott,

    Great news!

  2. fred Says:

    Of topic, but interesting interview of Scott about the latest theories of everything

  3. Tu Says:

    Forget crypto currency– learn to count cards (take about 4 hours or so). Head to the closest casino near you, and as soon as deck is +EV (any amount, doesn’t matter how much), bet the whole 250k! Shame on you and your risk aversion!

  4. Scott Says:

    fred #2: Yeah, I was planning to blog about it once Tim has the whole interview online. Meantime, enjoy. 🙂

  5. BQP Explorer Says:


    I feel like most of the initiatives aimed at young STEM nerds aren’t really addressing the deep struggles that many nerdy guys have. Sure, at math camps, at coding camps, young nerdy guys can meet other likeminded guys. But let’s face it—that won’t solve the deepest problem that many young straight nerdy guys (including you?) struggle with, which is the whole world of dating/sex. This might sound like a crazy idea, but I genuinely think the best way that you could help many of these young love-shy nerdy STEM guys is to pay for a sexual experience with a prostitute. This might be legally problematic in the US, but it would be entirely possible in countries like Germany or the UK with legalized prostitution. I think paying for nerdy STEM guys to have a sexual experience with a female would be a better use of your funds than pretty much anything else, to be honest with you. Surely that would have helped you?

  6. Qwerty Says:

    Great! My recommendation is to spend some of the resources letting gifted kids know about these opportunities. There are too many choices, all with elaborate application processes etc. It is hard to know which are the high quality ones.

    Maybe a simple web page you create to list great camps ? The CTY magazine called Imagine has such a curated list for STEM. I can loan you one of their old issues if you want to see how they do it. They have a concise paragraph. Their focus is STEM camps in general.

    Such curation is useful for gifted kids to have in middle school so they know what is worth applying to. Schools don’t really care. I only learned most things after my son outgrew them. I now try to help other kids I teach.

    Curated lists are awesome!

  7. Scott Says:

    BQP Explorer #5: Assuming this isn’t a troll comment — what you suggest would be wildly illegal in basically any jurisdiction on earth if minors were involved. Even if we were talking about non-minors, even in jurisdictions where it was legal, it would be both politically impossible and of dubious benefit; those who might be helped by a sex worker could surely pay for that themselves.

    I actually am interested in what we could do around social skills and assertiveness training and therapy for shy, nerdy young people. To have a chance, any initiative along those lines should probably stay a thousand light-years away from your idea. 🙂

  8. asdf Says:

    Perhaps I could earn the latter sort of sums, to donate to STEM education or any other cause, by (for example) starting my own cryptocurrency exchange.

    Congrats on the $255K of grants! And you did the right thing. Starting a crypto exchange to raise charity funds is like starting a meth lab to help ADHD-afflicted children. You end up getting high on your own supply. Musk has replaced SBF in the current news cycle, but it’s the same story. Better to keep your wits about you.

  9. BQP Explorer Says:

    On the airport wi-fi now, which sucks, hopefully this post gets through.

    I’ve got to disagree with you here, Scott.

    1. Your perception of the legal situation is simply false. Some of the largest European Union member states have their age of consent set at 14: Germany, Austria, Italy and Portugal just to name a few. In those states ot is perfectly legal for a 14-year-old to visit a prostitute or a brothel (where they are legal). For instance, in this news story two 14-year-old boys stole their family’s jewels to pay for a brothel visit: Brothels routinely advertise to clientele under the age of 18 and serve them in Germany. In the UK and Nevada, the age of consent is 16, and a 16 year old is legally able to seek a sex worker.

    Attitudes towards sex are much more liberal in Germany and other EU member states. Some German cities started a pilot program to provide sex workers to disabled people, payed for by tax dollars. I don’t think my proposal would be as controversial as you’re imagining.

    2. I also dispute your assertion that any nerdy guy would have the money to pay for a prostitute. High-end prostitutes are very expensive, especially for longer encounters. A software engineer at a FAANG might be able to afford to see prostitutes regularly, sure. But a nerd in high school or college? Where are they getting the money from, exactly? Are they supposed to somehow get a tech job and work full-time while they’re in school? Or are they supposed to wait 4+ years to graduate and get a tech job before they can start getting sex (missing out on all the college years)? Did you have the money to pay for it in high school or college? What if they want to pursue academia instead? Is a postdoc salary enough to pay for regular sex?

    3. I’m not imagining handing nerdy guys money for prostitutes. I’m thinking about integrating the sex into a mathcamp, for instance. The organization would find sex workers who would be a good fit for the boys and set up the encounters. You could have a visit to a brothel as part of the mathcamp schedule of activities. Or better yet, you could hire sex workers as counselors at the camp and set them up with the boys. In fact, prostitution might not even be necessary, if you can fond female camp counselors who would be willing to have sex with the students (who are above the local age of consent, of course).

    I think this is genuinely a great idea, and the only reason you’re opposed is because of our society’s arbitrarily repressive attitudes towards sex. In a perfect world, wouldn’t you g nerdy guys have sexual experiences with the female camp counselors? I know you’re somehwat sympathetic to this idea—you expressed your foundness for a hippie-era novel in which stidents are paired up when they go to college. I ask you this: in a perfect world, where people are more open about sex, couldn’t this be a great idea?

  10. Michael Vassar Says:

    BQP explorer. We don’t know much about perfect worlds, so I can’t decide between objections if that’s how you’re going to frame things. In the world we’re in, however, when I try to gradient descend to a politically viable compromise, I imagine it would go a long way towards quieting objections if your proposed program was actively transgender identity affirming, and thus made those who would otherwise be inclined to object extremely uncomfortable about doing so. That sort of political move would have some legitimate arguments to be made in its favor as well, yet I would be extremely uncomfortable about going there.

    How do you feel about taking this conversation in that direction?

  11. Qwerty Says:

    BQP Explorer #5:
    I’m glad someone brought up the possibility this was a trolling, or I might have thought I was the odd one out.

    Well, if you’re serious…

    To each his/her own and all that, sincerely, but the tendency in American culture to treat sex as a transactional thing really bothers me. It is so unhealthy to send a message to young people that it is easily decoupled from deep emotions like love and ideas like a committed long term relationship.

    I think this approach is a dangerous trend leading to dissatisfaction and serious long term problems for many men, not just women.

  12. mls Says:

    @Dr. Aaronson

    What you do in this regard is laudable. I might, personally, question what kind of ideas are reinforced at a math camp. However, I have first-hand knowledge of how exceptional students have funding for their talents squashed while other kinds of talents are promoted and funded.

    Good job!

    As a youth I had an adult friend who had been a Chicago Police Officer and former Marine. Years later, I ran into him as an adult — after becoming a convicted felon. From his experience, he observed that a significant number of intelligent kids get into trouble. Smart kids need affirming, engaging activities just as much as any other kids. Programs like these are important.

    Unfortunately, many parents only advocate for programs which (they believe will) benefit their own children. Antagonism against “elites” is thereby manifested against children in educational funding.

  13. mls Says:

    Qwerty #11

    Your comment makes me think of the Bryan Caplan thread and an article,

    referenced by Topologist Guy about how dating dynamics has been changing. I work in a “dirty and dangerous” profession with young people. It is the kind of profession obliquely referred to in the Bryan Caplan thread. This year, one of the laborers with whom I worked had been born in 2001 — the twentieth century is completely unknown to him.

    Most of the young men with whom I work that identify as American-born citizens say they will not get married. What they speak of when asked about this is an expression like “It’s cheaper to keep her.” This, of course, is a reference to “divorce law” which had also been mentioned in the Bryan Caplan thread.

    Perhaps the most egregious story I have run across is that of an elevator repairman who had to pay for the child of his wife’s infidelity because the child had been born before the divorce justified by that infidelity had been finalized.

    In so far as government-sanctioned marriage constitutes an economic relationship, our legal system has made the relationship between a man and a woman (and, by extension, any sanctioned relationship between significant others) a “transactional thing.” Indeed, one may even, apparently, apply game theory. Although it has been some time, I seem to recall that one analysis compared successful long-term relationships to the “tit-for-tat” game.

    My slightly older colleagues refer to this game somewhat differently — they often say “Happy wife. Happy life.”

    Being older, I grew up around couples with long-term relationships. So, I appreciate the value even though my own history has precluded such a thing. Two of my mother’s siblings celebrated 50th anniversaries. Two had marriages and divorces. My mother never married.

    I remember when “no-fault” divorce had been enacted when I was a teenager. Divorces then became common in the predominantly European-American communities in which I grew up. Undoubtedly, undocumented domestic violence contributed to this. And, for empty-nesters, the unequal division of domestic responsibilities in the absence of children also played a part.

    Speaking without the benefit of being a parent, it appears as if we can dictate how we should live to young people. But, as individuals, they must make choices against the world that their elders present to them. If sex has increasingly become a “transactional thing” whose fault is it other than our own?

    I have no other solution other than to say that we must work to treat each other with more civility and tolerance.

    No spitting off of the bridge.

  14. MyName Says:

    Scott #5
    Long time reader, second time commenter. Thanks for all the difficult work of maintaining a forum like this one, and doing it for so many years through all the awful travails.

    I respectfully suggest that comments like #3 are obvious trolling/bad faith (and probably from the one person you’ve had trouble with before!) and that it’s okay if you err on the side of not approving them when in doubt. You stated doubts about it being written in good faith in your response, so why not just send them on to the SOCG as it says in comment policy #5? I think it would improve the quality of both the blog and your personal experience, boosting the signal to noise ratio.

    I know it can be tempting to respond, though ;( You must have some real additional superpowers beyond scientific prowess to be able to wade through all these and still get work done!

  15. Theory Says:

    BQP Explorer #5, #9: As a young nerdy straight guy who went to math camp and had their life changed for the better by it, what you are describing would have been deeply traumatic for me. I was not emotionally ready for intimacy at that age (i.e. high school). You seem to believe this would be a good experience for all involved, but it would in fact be abuse.

    You’re also ignoring the fact that some portion of the students at these camps were a) not straight (and not ready to advertise this fact), b) female, or c) still in middle school – and many of them had skipped a few grades. I cannot overstate how disastrously this would go if you somehow managed to implement it.

  16. Winners of the Scott Aaronson Grant for Advanced Precollege Stem Education - My Blog Says:

    […] Read More […]

  17. Qwerty Says:

    mls#13 :
    Thanks for your response. That article is behind a paywall for me though.

    Not everything is a TYPE of question that can be addressed by an economist, or for that matter even a scientist.

    I think relationships like marriage, the parent-child one and even friendship, should not involve keeping tabs. No cost-benefit calculations! You give without expecting. That’s the only way, I think. Aristotle wrote about this in the context of friendship.

    Young people should be taught this way of living. It attracts people of the same type to you generally. People who see you as the end, not the means to anything.

  18. JimV Says:

    I agree with MyName’s comment–all of it, including the thanks.

    I have been (belatedly) resisting replies to such comments as the one MyName referred to because it never seems to do much good plus it is an opportunity to get carried away and make mistakes myself. Maybe just seconding the emotion of someone else will work better.

    Congratulations on the good work with the grants.

  19. Qwerty Says:

    Btw, For those who haven’t heard, there is a lovely 6 week program called program in algorithmic and combinatorial thinking. My son attended it summer after 9th grade. It is held in the CS dept at Princeton University and run by a professor Dr. Rajiv Gandhi, who came to really studying CS in a roundabout manner, had gone far with it and is genuinely passionate about theoretical CS and taking it to gifted high schoolers.

    They had students from around the world and the students eagerly did math problems 15 hours a day. I volunteered as a parent to house 4 kids. The age range was 9th grade all the way to some grad students brushing up theory.

    My son also did a year long algorithm design course with this camp, online, during 10th grade. It helped him pass the USA computing olympiad (USACO) exams with a perfect score and go to gold level really fast, without any other direct prep for it (knowing programming though).

    The 6 week camp had eminent guest lecturers from Princeton CS dept that year. I was stunned by the level of discussion among the kids.

    My son would have kept going to every summer, except he had other opportunities in learning to do research which he chose instead.

    After algorithm design they did approximation and randomization algorithms for the 2nd year students of the program, where the youngest would be 10th graders.

    The lower age limit was just for emotional maturity. They’ve once had an 8th grader though.

  20. OhMyGoodness Says:

    Wonderful work Dr Aaronson.

    College campuses often have buildings named after big donors. I doubt any of these programs have a multi-building campus but The Aaronson Computer Lab does sound pleasing.

  21. mls Says:

    Qwerty #17

    I cannot tell you how often I say “I am not a revenue opportunity” to my young coworkers when I ask them not to live their lives on smartphones. We do share certain values.

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