Edited cover of 1988 MIT Admissions brochure
Episode 6 – Coming Full Circle
Host reunites with his Educational Counselor decades after graduation and discovers some surprises.
Guest: Curtis Blaine, MIT Class of ’67, Course 15 and 21B, Baker House.
What if I challenged you to start a software company and keep it cash flow positive 40 years later? There’s a catch though. You are the only full-time employee and you can only hire teenage summer interns. Meet the MIT alumnus who accomplished this feat. I know because I was one of those interns.
MathTutor Educational Software, Inc. is a leading publisher of self-study tutorial software for Grades 6-12 math. Contact Curtis through his website if you’d like to help take his ambitious new math portal from prototype to reality.
Per MIT’s website: “As advocates and ambassadors for MIT, Educational Counselors (ECs) recruit, interview, and respond to the concerns of admissions candidates within communities across the country and abroad. Uniquely positioned to put a human face on the Institute, ECs encourage and assist students and their parents in discovering MIT’s educational, social, and extracurricular opportunities.”
Call to action:
- MIT Alumni – Sign up to become an Educational Counselor. More ECs are needed to accommodate increasing undergraduate applications.
Volunteering as an MIT Educational Counselor
- MIT Undergraduate Alumni – Contact your EC from years ago and say, “Hello!” Your EC will be thrilled to hear from you. You never know what you’ll discover.
The Tech Article: Boston Globe Hack
Host: What if I challenged you to start a software company and keep it cash flow positive 40 years later? There’s a catch though. You are the only full-time employee and you can only hire summer interns, teenagers to be exact. Sounds impossible, right? Today, you’re going to meet an MIT alumnus who accomplished this feat. I know because I was one of those teenage summer interns.
Curtis: After graduating from MIT and having a few years the workplace, that’s when I began my own business and simultaneously being an Educational Counselor. And I found that it was incredibly energizing to meet MIT undergraduate applicants like yourself.
Host: That’s Curtis Blaine, MIT Class of ’67, Courses 15 and 21B, Baker House. He’s the founder and CEO of Math Tutor, a company that has surprisingly weathered the storm of technology shifts over the past few decades.
Like me, he’s also an Educational Counselor, an MIT alum who interviews prospective MIT undergraduate applicants as part of the admissions process.
This episode intertwines Curtis’s journey with mine. I caught up with him 33 years after he interviewed me for my undergrad application, setting in motion an academic journey that changed my life. This time, the tables were turned and I got to ask the questions. I had no idea how many surprises were in store for me.
I’m Ravi Patil. And this is Institrve, true stories about MIT, a trove of wonder discovery and madness. This podcast explores the diversity of the human experience. The question of what it means to be human is a timeless one. By hearing the stories of others, we just may find a piece of ourselves and be inspired to transcend our own limitations.
Host: What attracted you to MIT?
Curtis: Going to MIT, wasn’t my first choice, believe it or not, but Caltech was. The allure was California. I was living in New York when I was in high school.
Host: I applied to MIT and Caltech. Somehow I got into both but MIT was always first on my list, so I didn’t even bother giving Caltech a thought.
Curtis: I think MIT offers so many things, not just the being in Boston angle, but the richness of all the other experiences outside of the classroom. I’m really grateful. I have the fondest memories.
Host: Curtis spent an extra year at MIT and earned bachelor’s degrees in management and humanities.
Curtis: I had been interested in athletics in high school and in particular, weightlifting and things like taking protein supplements to build your muscles. When I got to MIT, I was actually thinking of majoring in nutrition and food science.
But, that didn’t last very long. I certainly saw huge opportunities elsewhere. To make a long story short, I needed a fifth year because I hadn’t quite enough credits in any particular major by the end of my fourth year. So I needed a fifth year and I got a second bachelor’s degree.
Host: We’ll revisit his comical foray into nutrition a bit later.
Did you live on campus during your time at the Tute?
Curtis: I was in Baker House. I really enjoyed it. There is one funny hack.
Some students went to one of the bathrooms in the winter. They opened the window. They turned on the showers hot. [sfx: shower turning on] And they created just the right conditions to generate snow and the whole bathroom was filled with snow. And somebody took a picture of it and they sent it to The Boston Globe and The Globe ran this story. MIT students, single-handedly make snow or something like that. The funny thing about it is that it wasn’t true at all. They just got a bunch of snow from outside and carried it up into the bathroom. And so the hack was on The Boston Globe for running the story and portraying these MIT geniuses. So to me, that’s a pretty funny story.
Host: Check out the show notes for a link to The Tech article.
After you graduated, did you head right into your startup?
Curtis: I did not come right into the business. I decided to get an MBA. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do. And I thought by getting an MBA, I’d position myself to go in different directions, not necessarily business. I was more of a creative person. So I ended up coming to the University of Chicago Business School. And eventually I met my future wife and we married and then we moved to Munster. Before the company started, I was a self-employed contract programmer for IBM. And so I had a client base and income from that.
Host: So, let’s start with your software business.
Curtis: The name of the company is Math Tutor Educational Software. And the website is called mathtutor.com. The company markets software that teaches pretty much grades 6 through 12 of math: pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, and on up. There’s an SAT math, a business math course, and the newest entry is called “Advanced Business Math,” which gets into installment loans and things like that. Products have been developed for Windows PCs and were distributed either by download or by sending the customer CD. We’ve been around since 1983.
I started out with a partner, a math instructor at Purdue University’s extension campus in Hammond. But because finances were tight at the beginning, after six months of working very hard on our first program, he had to go find a job. We just, at that point, had the SAT program to sell and did not yet even have Algebra I.
Host: So the idea of learning math on the computer will sound commonplace to today’s audience. However, when you dreamed up this idea in 1983, it was quite revolutionary. At the time when computers were finding their way into people’s homes for the very first time, they could now learn math. You had perfect timing!
Curtis: It was perfectly timed because personal computers were the brand new hot thing and parents were buying them for their kids for entertainment, but also for educational purposes.
So with a very small revenues we had, my partner could not continue on. This all led to our realization that we’ve just got to find talented programmers.
Host: You only had developers working during the summers. So you had three months to get your product development done. How did you go about planning your roadmap based on that kind of seasonality?
Curtis: Excellent question. I think that it was never the expectation that this would persist forever. And so in the summer of ’84, I borrowed some computers from a local church.
Munster High School had some excellent math students. They were always in the newspaper having won some state competition. And, we spoke to the math department. About 4 or 5 students worked for me. We got a lot done. It was very productive.
After the summer ended, I would often just work intensely hard trying to finish what the students hadn’t quite finished. And if I didn’t have the time to do that, it really didn’t get done. It just waited until the next summer came around. This is not a good way to introduce new products. We did the best we could, but did not get products to market quite as quickly as we had hoped to.
Host: And this is how I crossed paths with Curtis. I showed up at his home in October 1988 for my MIT interview.
I remember just being so nervous of not knowing what to expect because this is it. This is MIT.
Curtis: Your one chance.
Host: I still remember what I wore when I came to see you in your living room, sitting on the couch and having that interview and just being utterly excited and terrified at the same time.
Host: It was a very enjoyable experience because you had all kinds of stuff with you. I had the regular brochures but you had some extra stuff that I hadn’t seen before and I was hungry for anything MIT related.
Curtis: I’m always working as hard as possible to help students who who are applying. To do a good job of interviewing the applicant and writing the report. I always feel this desire to tell them about the really unique things that MIT offers.
Host: For many folks, as was the case with me, when I met you the first time, I had never met an MIT alum before and my only knowledge of MIT was the admissions brochure I had, and this is in the ’80s, or seeing the PBS show about the 2.70 contest. That’s all I had.
For the person being interviewed, that interaction allows them to fill that space in their mind. Of course, these days you have the blogs on the admissions site and countless YouTube videos to get a sense for the place. But the role of that interviewer in demystifying MIT is a very important one.
Curtis: I totally agree. Before the interview that I had, MIT didn’t really have the face of a human.
Host: My main worry about MIT was that it was going to be cutthroat competition, cold, the dark gray skies of Cambridge, and am I going to be just surrounded by robots?
And I found the experience to be exactly the opposite. The friendships that were developed there, the camaraderie among all the students. I never felt in competition with other students which is so counterintuitive. I felt the main competition was with myself. Could I keep up? Could I do everything I wanted to do?
Curtis: Yeah, I I totally agree with what you’re saying. I did not feel that competition. I think most of the friends I had at MIT did not either. I enjoyed just being there and being a part of this enterprise that is so special in terms of advancing knowledge and preparing students for the future.
Host: So I have a confession to make. In preparing for the interview, I had no idea what to expect and so I did spend a part of my time reviewing trigonometric identities and looking at my chemistry book, just in case.
Curtis: I should have asked you a question just to, justify that preparation.
Host: Oh, I’m glad you didn’t!
Curtis: Yeah, I could have added some entertainment by having a periodic table on the wall and, just maybe, singing out the elements,
Host: At the end of the Interview, Curtis stunned me with a summer job offer. I immediately said “Yes!” and concluded the interview went well.
And so I snail mailed my early action application and began the endless wait, hoping for the best but expecting the worst.
I was waiting to get notification and the urban legend was, of course, that if you receive a thin envelope, that means you had gotten rejected and if it was a thick packet, you had gotten in. I guided my whole psyche around that belief.
And so what happened was on that Saturday morning, it was December 17th actually, that I was sleeping in and the phone rang. My mom picked up the phone and then I heard her screaming from downstairs for me to pick up the phone. I was like, what? At 8 in the morning on Saturday? So I was still in bed when I picked up the phone. And then you were on the other end of the line
Host: congratulating me on my acceptance.
Curtis: I guess you found out it was just about as soon as I did.
Host: Yes, and I just jumped out of bed. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard and I was in disbelief. I was elated but in disbelief for a few hours. And then the mailman came later on in the day, and low and behold, it was a thin envelope, one sheet of paper.
Curtis: Oh my God.
Host: So I’m very grateful that you called me. Otherwise, I would’ve been crushed.
During the summer before college, I worked at Math Tutor programming educational lessons for differential and integral calculus.
It was the perfect job for me because the class that really opened up my mind was calculus. I was so enthralled by that subject. It was the first class I had in the morning, senior year of high school. And I literally could not wait to go to school for this class.
And then, after the year was done, I started a summer job doing the same stuff.
Curtis: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s a challenge because you’re being asked to take what you know, and represent it. You had to come up with problems. You had to come up with ways to generate the wrong answers. Things like that were really challenging. In a way it could really reinforce your understanding.
Host: It made me think more abstractly. There wasn’t a fixed set of problems in the bank. We had problem generators. So there’ll be a lot of random number statements in the problems. And then in order to get the animation to work, you have to know how many characters were in the string, because the way the parentheses were moving around and the multiplication symbols and stuff, at any given moment, you needed to know precisely how many characters were being printed on screen.
So it was a very interesting meta math problem, so to speak. You are solving a calculus problem but behind the scenes, the developer, in which case it was me, had to keep track of all these other things to do the animation correctly. So I thought that was very fascinating.
Curtis: Yeah. Yeah. That’s something that has to be thought through carefully as you’re designing the layout of this screen.
Nowadays with animation everywhere in software, it’s not really talked about so much, but at the time, it was one of the very few educational software programs that did that. And we would get testimonials from schools saying the students are enamored of the animation effects.
And I think it wasn’t just teaching things, but it was getting the student enjoying the experience of learning and that was part of what you did, definitely. You did great work. A lot of the code you wrote is definitely still out there being used productively.
Host: I am blown away that my code from decades ago is still in use today.
Curtis: If anybody went under the hood and looked at the uncompiled code, they would see all the remarks and Ravi Patil would be one of the authors
Host: Oh, you know what? Next time I come to Munster I would love to see that.
Curtis: We had to sanitize it and take all the bugs out later, but no, I’m kidding. But, no, you did great work and I have fond memories.
Host: The summer job paid well and funded many pistachio ice cream cones at the Student Center Tosci’s. Rest in peace.
How do you compete with Khan Academy, which is free?
Curtis: Maybe I should stop right now and retire. No, that’s a good question. I think the answer is that in some ways, I believe it really is better. I like Khan Academy in many ways but they don’t have the animation. They don’t have the randomized problems. You can do problems, but they’re a fixed library of problems. And I just think the interactivity will give you a learning opportunity that’s more dynamic and interactive. Again, I really like Khan Academy, so I’m not criticizing it in any way.
Host: Khan Academy was founded by MIT alumnus Sal Khan and is an amazing education platform. Sal, if you’re listening, would love to have you on the show.
Curtis: Let me ask you one question. During the years that I had the students down here in the basement. That’s where I am right now. As a matter of fact, my home office. I was smoking a pipe a lot. I had to stop eventually because my dentist warned me about what might be coming. But I hope I didn’t subject these students I had to any unpleasant smoke. Now that we know more about secondhand smoke, I truly regret it. I hope it wasn’t something that you had to really suffer through.
Host: That’s very kind of you to ask. I have no recollection of even smelling pipe smoke.
Curtis: Okay. It could be that I stopped that before you started but anyway, I’m glad you didn’t.
Host: Math Tutor caught a lucky break in the early ’90s.
Curtis: In 1992, we were contacted by Houghton Mifflin publishing company in Boston. And they had seen our products and liked them. They wanted to have supplemental software to give to people who purchased the textbooks but our products didn’t quite exactly line up with the topics that were covered in the textbooks. I went to Boston and we worked out a deal. I did part of the work. Mike did part of the work to deliver to Houghton Mifflin the software that they wanted.
Host: Mike was a former summer intern.
Curtis: The revenue from that was quite good.
Host: The high from this deal was short-lived.
Curtis: Mike continued on for a while after the Houghton Mifflin project was completed. One day, he simply said he wanted to leave. I was really shocked and disappointed because we had just worked out a full time deal where he would be well paid.
And since I’m not telling you his last name, I’m not divulging too much but it turned out Mike discovered, maybe 15 years later, that he had bipolar disease. And he ended up writing a book talking about illness and his discovery of that, which had not been made until he was practically 40 years old. And it explained to him all the episodes his life, where he’d been either extremely energized and super productive or really down in the dumps.
Every person is different and you can’t just treat them as programmers. You have to recognize your individuality and try to accommodate that or help them or just live within that reality.
Host: A nice takeaway, reflecting mind, hand, and heart.
Curtis: I haven’t talked to Mike too much since he wrote the book and but I think he’s doing quite well.
Host: Let’s switch gears and go back to educational counseling. What prompted you to become an EC?
Curtis: That’s a funny story. [sfx: busy restaurant] The person who was previously the EC for the northwest Indiana region invited me to a nice lunch. A little bit more pricey than I would normally go to. And, they don’t exist anymore, but it was Phil Schmidt’s, a legendary fish place but they also specialize in gooseberry pie. And, that was delicious. We were talking and just having a grand all the time. As we’re wrapping up, he lays on me the fact that he’s moving to Florida and desperately needed someone to step in for him. I was roped into it without realizing what happened. I’m very grateful for having had the opportunity.
Host: What impact did interviewing these applicants have on you?
Curtis: The students that I interviewed were inspiring. They showed me how good the local school system was here in Munster, Indiana.
It inspired me to think about how the world is going to be changed by these young men and women full of ideas and enthusiasm and idealism ready to take their place in society. So seeing that firsthand gave me a chance to really get a very good feeling about the future of the country and society in general.
Even though I’m interviewing them, they benefited me a great deal. It gave me a chance to ask for some ideas on how educational software can be employed to help students learn math and helped me to improve the products that I had.
Host: I have the same experience. It’s the feeling of “We’re in good hands.” When we think about all of these daunting challenges in front of us with climate change, artificial intelligence, biological engineering, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and become pessimistic.
Curtis: That’s right. I can see so many benefits to being an educational counselor. Eventually, I did retire from that position, but I really value that experience and I encourage alumni to consider it because it’s a way to serve, to give back to MIT but also it’s a way of receiving from the students the kind of the vibes, the energy that they feel, and most importantly, I think it’s the idealism. And so it’s a way to recharge ourselves.
Host: I found it also had another inadvertent benefit for me. Seeing the wide variety of extracurricular activities they were doing inspired me and I seriously got into woodworking. I challenged myself to follow my curiosity and see where it led.
Curtis: Yes, that is something I did hear about. A great number of extracurricular activities.
Host: I had one heartbreaking experience as an EC. I was interviewing this bright young man. During the interview I come to find out that he spent a chunk of his childhood homeless with his family. And despite those challenges, this fellow had a sparkle in his eye and he was so eager to learn and he would work after school at a small manufacturing warehousing company to help his family make ends meet. And just his assessment of life, of human dynamics. It was mind blowing. And I poured my heart out in writing the assessment. And I was really cheering him on, just absolutely eager to find out what happened. But it turns out he didn’t complete the application process.
Curtis: Oh, darn.
Host: Yeah, he would’ve made for a fantastic student at MIT. It would have transformed his life but he didn’t complete the application.
During podcast interviews, it’s common to find hidden gems in off topic discussion. I just couldn’t resist including the anecdotes about Curtis chasing a few dollars on campus. The following took place during the summer of ’65. Enjoy.
Curtis: The Aero-Astro department had posted a notice for someone who was willing to be a guinea pig, and sit in a cockpit but the rest of the plane wasn’t there. [sfx: machinery shaking] And the idea was that while you were sitting in this cockpit, they would be jostling you around trying to see if you’d survive. Just to see your responses to the various physical stresses that you were undergoing. So I applied and I sat in the cockpit and I thought this would be great. I do hope they’ll pick me. They didn’t though and I never understood why.
Host: Not to be deterred, Curtis donated his body to science once more. But this time he took it to the next level.
Curtis: This was in the nutrition area. This researcher wanted to study digestion in the small intestine. So I’m laughing because, how do I fit into that? They told me the idea is I would swallow this tube. I would have down my throat for about 24 hours, but they told me, “Oh, it’s not so bad once you swallow it. It’s not gonna hurt you and it’s gonna help us a great deal.” Primarily, I was looking to make 20 bucks. I was less thinking about the future of science and had to pay some bills.
I swallowed this plastic tube. This is a hard, horrible experience. This thing going down your throat into your stomach. And what’s supposed to happen is that your digestive process, the persistalsis motion of your stomach, would move that tube along into your intestine just like it moves food along. The next day they would send some food or protein or something down through the tube and observe the digestive process taking place in the small intestine.
I had to go that whole day with this rubber tube coming out of my mouth. [sfx: tennis shots] I remember playing tennis. Literally, I had the end of the tube tucked away in my pocket of my shirt and here I was playing tennis, just doing normal stuff.
The next day, to finish the experiment, unfortunately, the tube had not worked its way down into my intestine. It has to do with the particulars of my stomach. There’s a little bit of a jiggle right there where the duodenum is. It just did not pass through as it usually would. Of course, food passes through but this tube did not.
They pulled it out, which is just equally unpleasant experience. And they said, “Okay, here’s 10 bucks instead of the 20 you would’ve gotten if you could’ve actually helped us. Get outta here!” So I disappointed them, myself as well, just getting 10 bucks as opposed to 20.
Host: Oh my goodness. So let me ask you this. MIT is such a weird and quirky place. I bet no one even questioned you as you walk down the Infinite why you have a rubber tube hanging outta your mouth?
Curtis: I fit in just like it in Star Wars. They have that crazy cafe where I guess all the creatures of the universe get together for a drink or two, and they all have their own particular weirdness about them. So, yep, I just fit in. And nobody said anything about it. Not that anyone else had a tube like I did.
In some way, yeah, that’s just another person at MIT doing his thing. In fact, on the tennis court, nobody even seemed to care about that. Although it was pretty obvious I had something going on there. I was not very good chasing down those drop shots. I slept with it okay. I played tennis with it okay. And I even ate, but, unfortunately, I never got that extra 10 bucks.
Host: I think you deserve that extra 10 bucks plus interest from the Institute.
Curtis: I second that and, hopefully the check will be in the mail very soon.
Host: Yes. I’ll see what I can do.
Do you think the crushing force of your forehand caused the tube to wriggle out?
Curtis: That would be nice to think. No, I don’t think so. When I was a boy, I used to have some pain in my stomach, just a stabbing pain and, it would just last a second or two and I never knew what that was.
When I was an adult, the gastroenterologist said, “You have a spastic duodenum.” He thought it was related to an ulcer that I might have had as a child. My childhood was a little bit stressed. My parents were getting divorced and that most likely explains the pains I would occasionally feel.
And my Mom had them too when she was a child. I believe in my Mom’s case, it was also a case of family stress. Her father had died when she was only about 12 or so. They were also going through The Depression. So my grandmother was a single parent supporting two children. And my Mom perhaps internalized all those stresses and it led, I’m just speculating here, that it led to ulcers for her as well.
Host: Ah, okay. Sorry to hear that but I’m glad you’re doing well.
All right, back to the show.
Host: What’s your vision for the future of math tutor?
Curtis: What I envision is a very ambitious math portal which would provide opportunities to not just students in school but to the whole world, really, people from every walk of life. It would give everyone an opportunity to improve their math skills and to excite them about math. So that’s my vision. I do have prototype of it.
But my problem is even though I’m doing well financially, I’m pretty much working by myself and I’m looking for help. Either someone who can contribute directly to some of the design decisions about how this is gonna look and work or even software development help.
I’m also looking to talk to anybody who wants a part of the ownership of this product, which I probably would spin off into a separate company. I couldn’t promise specific financial rewards to anyone but I could say, “Why don’t we talk if this sounds of interest to you?” because I would like to explain more and the potential that I see.”
Host: Despite all of the innovation in education, it seems like we have a long way to go as a nation in terms of stem literacy.
Curtis: Isn’t it tragic how once a year, when we hear about the performance of American students, the performance drops. And it’s not always obvious what that means. It certainly doesn’t look good but is it a consequence of measuring their progress in a certain standardized way that doesn’t really reflect the educations that they’re getting? Or is it truly a fact that most students are leaving school even less prepared in math than they were in the past?
So I think math education’s at a crossword roads and so much of today’s technology and the future of innovation depends on basic math skills and STEM, which is a great initiative helping students to see math in context of engineering and real life applications.
Host: I’m curious about your prototype. How should folks get in touch with you to learn more?
Curtis: They could do that by finding the phone number on my website, which is mathtutor.com.
Host: How about email?
Curtis: Curtis [at] mathtutor.com.
Host: Let’s conclude this episode with a tough question. A matter of great personal interest. Do you at all recall what you wrote about me after the interview that you sent back to MIT? That was forever ago, I know.
Curtis: I really don’t. Actually it’s three feet away from my arm here. I have this file cabinet and every write-up is in there. I know it would have been glowing.
Host: Okay. So you might actually have it then?
Curtis: Oh, no, I do. I do for sure.
Host: Oh, okay!!
Curtis: I can get you a copy. I’ll make a PDF and email it to you.
Host: That would be wonderful! I can’t believe it. Thank you.
Math Tutor, the software company Curtis founded almost 40 years ago, is still going strong today. After serving as an educational counselor for 34 years, Curtis passed the Baton to the next generation.
MIT alumni, this is where you come in. I have two requests:
First, sign up to become an educational counselor. MIT received almost 34,000 applications for roughly 1,300 slots for the class of 2026. The Admissions Office would like to offer every applicant the opportunity to interview but was not able to accommodate every request. I’m told there was a statistically significant bump in applications due to that scene involving MIT in the movie Spiderman: No Way Home.
If you serve as an EC, you’ll make a difference in the journey of promising young adults, whether they are admitted or not. You’ll give back to MIT in a meaningful way. And you’ll certainly benefit personally.
Search on MIT Educational Counselor and you’ll find a link to learn more. I’ve also provided the link in the show notes. It’s easy to get started.
And second, Undergrad Alumni, contact your EC from years ago and say, “Hello!”
I can guarantee that your EC will be thrilled to hear from you.
You may not realize this but your EC was heavily invested in your hopes and dreams and felt immense pride being a part of your MIT journey.
You never know what you’ll discover.
Choose happiness. See you next time.
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