First-year student Henry Muhlbauer kicked off his college career with a full course load, taking classes in electrical engineering, computer programming and chemistry, among his 15 credits.
He still made time, however, for his other favorite pursuits: Little League (where he plays first base), training the family dog and BB-gun target practice with coffee cans in the backyard.
At 12, Henry may be the youngest student ever to enroll full time at UVA.
“If you look at Henry, he looks 12 years old,” says Dean James H. Aylor (Engr ’68, ’71, ’77) of the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “Physically, he’s a 12-year-old kid. But mentally, he’s not.”
With a buzz cut and braces, Henry rides in his mom’s Volvo station wagon to Grounds from his home in nearby Earlysville, where his family of five relocated in 2010 when his dad, an electrical engineer in the U.S. Air Force, was assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency in Charlottesville.
Before the move, Henry had attended public elementary school at their last post in England, but from early on it was obvious how far ahead he was.
“He was doing algebra at home for fun, and the other kids in the class were doing three plus two equals five,” says his mom, Kathleen Muhlbauer, a former public school teacher and reporter. “Sometimes we were shocked by how much he knew.”
Once in Charlottesville, his parents began searching for opportunities to support and engage then 8-year-old Henry, who on his own had worked his way through an organic chemistry textbook and had moved on to precalculus. His mom contacted Mary Saville (Engr ’97), a former Jefferson Scholar who was teaching a high-school-level pre-engineering class in a homeschool co-op.
“This is going to sound really strange to you,” Muhlbauer began, and then asked if her son could take the class.
Saville gave the OK after meeting with the family and concluding that Henry himself was the driving force: “He was the least-pushed child I’ve ever met,” Saville says. “Learning was his hobby.”
Says his mom, “I think what makes Henry really, really special is this is just what he loves to do.”
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of his new coursework, Saville says in jest, was carrying such a heavy backpack on his slight frame. “Inside of two years,” she says, “he exceeded everything I know about mathematics.”
Saville helped connect the family with administrators at UVA, who debated whether to allow him to enroll in his first class, Multivariable Calculus, at age 10.
“I was concerned about a 10-year-old with 20-year-olds,” says Professor Robert Weikle, who teaches the class. “Is he going to fit in? How much does he really know?”
Weikle met Henry and found him to be well spoken, mature for his age and respectful. The professor gave him a textbook to use over the summer, and Henry worked through many of the problems.
By then, he had already immersed himself in calculus with books his parents had bought. “He taught himself calculus 1 and 2 in about eight weeks, sitting at the dining room table,” says his dad, Tom Muhlbauer.
“He’s a very self-motivated young man,” Weikle says. “He will grab onto a topic and study it voraciously.”
Weikle gave the go-ahead for Henry to attend his class, and after the very first session Henry told his mom, “This is where I need to be.”
He got an A in the course—the sixth-highest grade out of 70 students. (In his second course with Weikle, Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering I, Henry earned an A+, tying for the highest grade in a class of 48 engineering students.)
“He was one of the few students who was not afraid to interrupt me and ask questions,” Weikle says.
The professor would overhear other students chatting with Henry, asking questions like, “What did you think of the test?” “They respected him as a peer intellectually,” Weikle says. “Henry was with his peer group—he just achieved it earlier than most people do.”
Weikle, who is now Henry’s academic advisor, continued to have discussions with Henry’s parents about how best to meet his educational needs.
In applying for full-time admission, Henry took subject tests in U.S. history, physics and math to show he was a well-rounded student. “He expresses himself quite well,” Weikle says. “He can write at a college level. Based on that, I thought he was going to be fine.”
By the time Henry enrolled full time last fall, he already had 41 course credits and 16 AP credits on his transcript.
“We’re fortunate to have Henry here, because there are a lot of other places, I’m sure, that would like to have him as part of their university,” says Professor George L. Cahen (Engr ’70, ’76), associate dean for undergraduate programs in the Engineering School, who taught Henry in his materials science class.
Since enrolling full time, Henry has declared electrical engineering as his major, with minors in physics and applied mathematics. He’s thinking about double-majoring in computer science, too. And at the start of this semester, he was awarded the William Tyler and Gay Caskie Ross Scholarship, which will cover his tuition and fees in full.
Aside from academics, Henry has delved into other aspects of UVA life, too—sitting with other first-years in the student section at Scott Stadium and playing on the Engineering School’s kickball team (which he says he signed up for to get a free T-shirt).
“I feel like I belong here,” he says.
He has even joined the Alumni Association, enticed by the free parking at Alumni Hall during football games. He is the youngest member that the association has ever had.
Henry has enough credits to graduate in 2017—meaning he could get his degree at age 14. But his plan, he says, “is to graduate when I’ve learned the things I need to learn, not to set any records.”
Grad school. For what? That’s yet to be determined.
“He has different interests that come up,” his dad says. “If you asked me six months ago, I would’ve said nanotechnology. A year ago, I would’ve said something with metamaterials. Two years ago, I would’ve said cryptography.”
To pave the way toward grad school, Henry hopes to work grading papers to contribute to his expenses.
But he can’t just yet.
Virginia labor law dictates a minimum age of 14 for such work.