Yvonne Abraham

A gift born from peril

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / May 5, 2011

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WORCESTER — This is the story of a math teacher, his smart idea, his brain tumor, and his decision to walk away from a big pile of money. Twice.

Neil Heffernan, a tall, thin, voluble, 40-year-old computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, was always an unusual guy. For example, in high school in Florida, he was an education geek — so obsessed with the nation’s troubled schools that he pored over academic studies the way other young men scrutinize Playboy.

He was also quite good at math. So he volunteered with Teach for America in the early 1990s. At an urban middle school in Baltimore, he soon learned kids weren’t ready for his math lessons because they hadn’t mastered the basics.

Heffernan gave them daily quizzes, then tried to tailor his teaching to what was puzzling each kid. But it was impossible to keep track of their myriad needs.

“A computer should do this,’’ he decided.

Behold, his smart idea.

Why not have students do their quizzes on computers? Let the results be processed by software that gathers info on where computations wander, concepts baffle, errors creep in. And when a student struggles with a problem, the program could offer a series of friendly hints, then assign other problems in the same vein to reinforce the lessons.

Heffernan enrolled in a doctorate program to develop this magically intelligent tutoring program, but he wasn’t progressing the way he’d hoped, and he was frustrated. So he put his pursuit on hold, and moved back to Massachusetts (he was born in Worcester) to join his brother-in-law in a Web startup that looked like it was going to make a lot of money.

Two weeks later, in May of 1998, Heffernan had a seizure. A scan found a tumor the size of a ping-pong ball. Several doctors told him it was inoperable, and that he had two or three years to live.

A lot of people might have been undone, but Heffernan is not the crying type: He is the type who makes up a song about his tumor, set to the tune of “The Rain in Spain,’’ from “My Fair Lady.’’ He and his wife, Cristina, who works with him at WPI, sang it loudly in his office earlier this week. One might think it impossible to set the words “oligodendroglioma astrocytoma’’ to Lerner and Loewe’s gem, but they manage it (“In the brain! In the brain!’’).

Also, Heffernan kept trying surgeons until he found one who would remove the tumor. And he reassessed his choices.

“Making all this money didn’t seem particularly important to me any more,’’ he recalled. “I didn’t think I had long to live. I thought, ‘What do I want to leave here? Maybe I should go back to this tutoring system.’ ’’

The company he walked away from was eventually sold for $15 million. (Pile of money number one.)

The cancer went away. Heffernan finished his doctorate, and his tutoring system, ASSISTments, was born: It’s used in 25 school districts in Massachusetts, a dozen districts in Maine, and in India.

Teachers say it saves them scads of time and helps them to teach more smartly. Studies show that Worcester schools using the tutoring system had higher MCAS gains than the school not using it, and that students using it earned a half-letter grade more in math.

Heffernan could make a fortune selling the tool to schools across the country. Instead, he gives it away. (Money pile two.) He’s talking to the Department of Education about licensing it for use across the state.

“If he sold it, he’d have nothing to do,’’ Cristina Heffernan said.

It has been 13 years since his initial diagnosis, and there’s always the possibility the cancer will come back. Until then, Heffernan seems delighted to be holed up in his office, studying statistics from his schools, declining to be terrified.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at