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Young mathematical minds honored in annual talent search

April 30, 2008 By Bobbi Jo Snethen

On Thursday, May 1, the University of Wisconsin–Madison math department will honor some of Wisconsin’s most mathematically gifted middle and high school students.

Nearly 20 students will be recognized for their scholarship and creativity after participating in UW–Madison’s 44th annual Math Talent Search, started by the late Professor Laurence Chisholm Young in 1963. The talent search committee will also award one student with the coveted Van Vleck Scholarship, which consists of a four-year scholarship to UW–Madison.

This year’s honors day celebration, beginning at 9:30 a.m. on the ninth floor of Van Vleck Hall, 480 Lincoln Drive, will include UW–Madison math professor Bob Wilson and engineering physics professor Wendy Crone as guest speakers; a tour of the Ingersoll Physics Museum; and the announcement of the Van Vleck Scholarship winner.

"We have a lot of talented students participate, and honors day is a great way for them to receive some recognition," says Donald Passman, a member of the talent search committee since 1991. "We invite anyone to come."

Each year, the talent search committee creates five sets of five problems and distributes them to high schools and middle schools throughout the state. The solutions do not require advanced mathematical knowledge, but emphasize the craft of problem solving.

"We try to keep the level of competition consistent each year," says UW–Madison math professor Martin Isaacs, who has been the director since 1980. "The problems are not routine — it’s not the kind of stuff kids see in the classroom. They’re tricky, they take some thinking and a lot of creativity."

The top performers of the talent search are eligible to compete for the Van Vleck Scholarship, awarded through a proctored and competitive written examination offered at various locations in Wisconsin each April. The scholarship consists of $6,000 per year for four years at UW–Madison.

"We have enough to fund one scholarship per year, but many of these talented students have offers to go to other universities so we often offer two against the odds that both students will choose to attend UW–Madison," says Isaacs.

This was the case for the Loh family. Wei-Yin Loh, a UW–Madison statistics professor, has three children, all of whom were offered the Van Vleck Scholarship as high school students at Madison Memorial. Not one attended UW–Madison.

Loh’s eldest son, Po-Shen, won the scholarship in 1997 but chose to attend the California Institute of Technology on a full scholarship. Po-Shen is now a mathematics graduate student at Princeton. Po-Ru, Loh’s second eldest son, won in 1999 and forwent UW–Madison for Cal-Tech as well. Today, he is pursuing his master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology. Loh’s youngest daughter, Po-Ling, won in 2002 and is currently studying at Cal-Tech, following the same path her brothers chose.

Loh encouraged his children to enter Mathcounts, a national math competition for middle school students, and later, they participated in the United States of America Mathematical Olympiad for secondary mathematics students. Loh believed the math talent search to be very beneficial, even though his children opted out of UW–Madison.

"When the talent search came along, it was the perfect bridge between Mathcounts and the Math Olympiad. Without Isaacs’ search, it would be hard for students to make that transition," says Loh. "It was just the right amount of difficulty to make that jump."

One participant who did take the Van Vleck scholarship is former Milwaukee Rufus King High School student Andrew Bolanowski, who remembers when his high school teacher first gave him the math talent search problem set.

"I thought it was worth a try at least. Some of them definitely took some time and it took me a while to find out the trick to them," says Bolanowski. "Once the scores came back, I didn’t finish at the top, but I thought I should give the scholarship test a try just to see how I’d do."

Bolanowski is currently attending UW–Madison after winning the Van Vleck Scholarship in 2003. He plans on attending graduate school here as well.

"There was a lot of incentive for me to go to Madison," says Bolanowski. "Madison is a good school with a good math program, it’s in state and close to home for me."

Isaacs, going on 28 years as the search committee’s director, says he hopes to find his replacement before he retires.

"This is a very exciting project that doesn’t get enough publicity," says Isaacs. "We get to reward some outstanding young minds each year and I’ve been very happy to have been a part of that."