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Kevin Chen, Math Whiz Wins Grand Prize in Siemens Competition

Kevin Chen is a 2009 team grand prize winner of the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

The Clements junior really just considers himself a good problem solver, which is his simple answer to the complex question: How did you get so good at math?

“It’s more that I like solving problems than specifically math,” he said. “My dad and kindergarten teacher used to give me logic puzzles.”

But that’s because he already had multiplication and division tables memorized and his teacher wanted to keep him interested.

What’s not so simple is his team’s winning project: Relating Missing and Decycling Edges in Directed Graphs, in which Kevin and his two teammates tackled a complex 30-year-old math problem in the field of graph theory.

According to a statement made by Siemens Foundation, the results of the project advance the infrastructure and knowledge of graph theory by shedding new light on a problem that’s been open in the mathematics community since 1978. The team’s approach may open doors to a reduction of bottlenecks in complex networks, like the World Wide Web and transcontinental trade routes, thereby creating faster and more efficient processes.

The Siemens Competition was launched in 1998 to recognize America’s best and brightest math and science students. Esteemed scientists at six leading research universities judge entries at the regional level.

A panel of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians headed by lead judge Dr. Thomas Jones, a prominent scientist, author, pilot and former NASA astronaut, judged the finals.

The three teammates, Kevin plus Sean Karson of Winter Park, Fla., and Dan Liu of Austin, Texas, first met at summer math camp at Texas State University two summers ago. Then, last summer, all second year math camp kids were mailed a list of math theory research topics from which to choose. Kevin, Sean and Dan all chose the same project and spent six weeks working together. After that, they communicated by e-mail and webcam. Dr. Jian Shen, professor of mathematics at Texas State University, mentored the team.

Kevin said he had no expectations of winning as they traveled through various levels of competitions, even when they reached the finals in New York.

“This was my first time doing this (competition), so I had no idea what to expect. But, it was very exciting. We just kept on progressing,” he said.

As grand prize winners, the team will share in a $100,000 scholarship. They also had the privilege of ringing the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange in January.

“We all pressed the button at the same time. It was exciting, especially knowing that it was such an honor and so many people would be watching.”

While on the floor of the stock exchange, they talked to a Siemens’ trader who explained how everything works.

“I tried my best to understand. It’s a cool place, but not a field I want to go into.”

Kevin has experience winning other impressive competitions. In eighth grade he won MATHCOUNTS, a national mathematic problem solving competition for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students who compete in school, chapter, state and national levels. About 250,000 kids participate in the program each year. In sixth and seventh grade he was one of the top scorers and was honored at the Oval Office by President Bush.

And, it was his first-place win in the eighth grade that also got him a nomination for a television award.

In September 2007, Kevin was featured on Live with Regis and Kelly when he won the Best Junior Achiever award, one of several categories in the show’s annual Relly Awards. Winners are chosen by viewers’ online votes.

“It was cool. They flew my mom and me to New York and I was on the show with Charles Gibson.

Regis even had a one-on-one math contest between us,” he laughed.

Kevin isn’t exactly sure what field he’ll go into, but is leaning toward computer science or chemical engineering. He also has an interest in physics. He plans to test in the U.S. Physics Olympiad.

Kevin lives with his mom, Yuan, and his dad, Lieming, who is now a software engineer but was once a physics professor in China. His sister, Regina, is in sixth grade and likes math, but is more into drawing and dance according to Kevin.

Regina is a member of Quail Valley Middle School’s math club where Kevin volunteers once a week to help students practice for competitions. The club couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than Kevin Chen, who wrote the formula for winning math competitions.

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