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Math whiz helps CPS students

Luis Larco student Illinois Institute Technology Friday August 24 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Luis Larco, student at Illinois Institute of Technology, Friday, August 24, 2012. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 28, 2012 6:15AM

To attract top graduates from City Colleges of Chicago and other community colleges in the U.S. to its South Side campus, the Illinois Institute of Technology established a Presidential Scholarship program a few years ago.

The program, which awards students $28,500 for tuition and housing, has 190 community college transfer students pursuing degrees in sciences, engineering, mathematics, business and architecture, according to Vice Provost Gerald Doyle, who oversees student access and diversity.

A goal is for students to leave an imprint on the city, mostly by mentoring students from Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges of Chicago and help them move on to four-year colleges, Doyle said.

You could say Luis Larco, 21, who immigrated to the U.S. from Peru seven years ago with no English skills, is exceeding expectations.

Larco arrived at IIT last year after receiving an associate’s degree from Miami Dade College’s honors program. He is pursuing degrees in electrical and computer engineering and already is doing graduate research work for IIT in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department as it seeks to formulate data and statistics to predict and prevent crime.

That’s a project description in its simplest form. Complex algorithms and thousands of variables come into play, from weather forecasts to 911 patterns, according to an IIT engineering magazine. Some details are confidential, Larco said.

“It’s exciting when something you do is actually going to be used, hopefully reducing crime in Chicago,” Larco said at his IIT office, where four computer screens have taken over his desk. “The future is all data, analyzing and predicting.”

Larco is a math whiz who found himself in lower-level high school math in Miami after his family moved from Peru.

After his freshman year, he sought tougher classes. “The department chair said, ‘Your English isn’t too good. Take the A in Algebra II.’ That really pissed me off,” Larco said.

He asked to take the Algebra II final exam before starting the class. He aced it and soon moved to upper level math. Eventually he received a 5, the highest possible score, in tests for Advanced Placement college Calculus, Statistics and Computer Science.

He could not afford to attend a four-year college and went to Miami Dade, which has a partnership with IIT and the Presidential Scholars program. IIT offered the most generous financial aid package of any university to which Larco applied.

Larco is one of several exceptional Presidential Scholars, Doyle said, “but among his peers, Luis is still extraordinary.”

Last spring, as president of IIT’s math club, Larco launched a math competition for CPS high schools, similar to a competition he put together at Miami Dade. He already is planning next year’s competition and is adding a high school engineering competition and math competition for City Colleges that could expand to community colleges statewide. He wants the top community college competitor to receive an IIT scholarship and is networking with university officials to get it done.

Recently he became a teaching assistant for a robotics exploration class. He speaks with an accent but has mastered English. Larco wants to someday build robots and program rockets.

Just a year ago, he arrived in Chicago unsure how he would make ends meet. IIT costs a whopping $48,000 a year. He strings together scholarships and stipends with money from his family.

“I opened my eyes one day and said, ‘I’m here taking classes and enrolled in clubs,’ ” he said, recounting his disbelief. “I realized if you don’t take the risk, you will never find out if you’re able to succeed.”

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