The prize isn’t quite a $1 million, but the American Mathematical Socety’s Who Wants To Be A Mathematician?” competition is no small deal.
The annual event taking place Thursday selects 10 students from around the country to vie for a cash prize of $10,000. This year the 10 includes Kelly Zhang, a senior at the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics.
Zhang, who learned the news in early November, said she “freaked out” when she heard. She, along with many of her classmates, took the first two rounds of qualifying tests in the fall.
The first round consists of 10 questions on algebra, trigonometry, probability, and math history that students must answer in 15 minutes, with a score of eight or higher required to move on to the next round.
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The second round was similar, but required that the students answer essay questions as well, such as “Why do you like math?” and “What would you do with the money if you won?” (Half of the money goes to the winner’s school.)
Science and Math (referred to as “SMath” by students) always performs well on these tests, with students advancing to the final round in four out of the past five years. Zhang joins all-male predecessors including Bryce Taylor, Class of 2011; Calvin Deng, Class of 2013; Sammy Luo, Class of 2014; and Michael An, Class of 2015.
Math teacher Philip Rash delivered the good news to Zhang. Although he has not yet taught Zhang – he is scheduled to do so later this year – he knows her through her participation in math contests.
“Seeing (her) grow and mature mathematically over the last year has really been exciting,” he said. “I was super-excited for her, and knew the honor was well-deserved.”
At Thursday’s competition in Seattle, the 10 contestants will be split into two semifinalist groups and individually answer eight questions, increasing in point value. The top two scorers in each group will then advance to the finals and compete for the grand prize.
Zhang concedes she is “slightly nervous,” adding, “I’m just going to go and do my best.”
Zhang has participated in the N.C. State Math Contest and the American Regions Mathematics League, which, according to the State Math Contest website, is “the only national, on-site math competition in the U.S.”
But beyond competing, Zhang says she has found a passion in mathematical research and study.
She is taking 10 math classes this year – her third trimester will consist of solely math classes – and will have taken every single math class the school offers by the time she graduates.
“In middle school I got hooked on competition math, so that was really fun,” she said. “(But) after going to SMath, I realized ... there’s so much more I can do with [math] instead of just … competing. It connects people from all around the world. I really like … how it helps me understand the world around me.”
Zhang, whose “love of mathematics” was inspired by her dad, hopes to major in applied mathematics in college. She said she enjoys “the applications (of math) to real life… especially how math is applied to business.”
But for now she’s focused on the contest.
And what would she do with the money if she wins?
“After senior year, me and my friends are thinking about doing something big together,” Zhang said and laughed. “I said in the question that I’d want to go on a road trip with them.”
About the contest
This is the seventh annual national Who Wants to Be a Mathematician contest. Nearly 700 students have won over $450,000 in cash and prizes in the contest, which is sponsored by technology sponsor Maplesoft, by the online community sponsor Art of Problem Solving, by Texas Instruments, John Wiley & Sons, and the American Mathematical Society.