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From The Morning Call -- May 10, 2004

Math talent adds up to give student a shot at Olympic glory
Parkland sophomore vying to compete with U.S. team in Greece.

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Ameya Velingker's parents knew he had a head for math when their boy began multiplying numbers — at 4 years old.

Lehigh University math professor Don Davis knew Velingker was special when Velingker qualified for a national high school math competition as an eighth-grader. Only nine Pennsylvania students made the cut; Velingker was the sole middle-schooler.



Now, Velingker has a shot at showing scholars from around the world just how smart he is.

The Parkland High School sophomore is one of 12 finalists for the team the United States will send to the International Mathematics Olympiad, a math competition for high school-age students. He is the only 10th-grader and only Pennsylvanian among the finalists, who represent the best young math minds in the country.

Six winners will be chosen this summer to represent the United States at the math Olympiad in Athens, Greece, in July. They will use algebra, geometry and other skills to solve problems complex enough to frustrate professional mathematicians.

Velingker, who lives in North Whitehall Township, knows making the team will be tough. Some of his older rivals have been to prior Olympiads. Still, he's looking forward to the challenge.

''It's going to be very competitive,'' he said. ''But, let's see how it goes.''

Soft-spoken and lanky, Velingker has been whipping through math competitions since the fourth grade, drawn to the challenge of unraveling complicated problems. He has described his math talent as a gift, though he also spends a lot of time studying and running through practice problems.

A flair for math runs in the family: His father, Avinash, is an electronics engineer. Avinash said he never pushed his son toward math, and never had to.

''He is self-motivated,'' said Avinash, who admits his son can solve the knotty Olympiad problems faster than he can. ''My emphasis was on creating interest, and then go and explore.''

Ameya Velingker said he ''didn't get too far'' in his first years competing in the 24 Challenge, a lightning-quick number-crunching contest. But he won the Lehigh Valley contest as a sixth-grader, then swept the Lehigh Valley and state events as a seventh-grader.

In eighth grade, he started working with Davis, who coaches the Lehigh Valley team in another national math competition, the American Regions Math League. That team is shooting for a top-20 finish among 200 teams at the league's eastern regionals next month.

The team also includes Jason Trigg, a sophomore from Kennett Square, Chester County, and friendly rival to Velingker. Trigg beat Velingker in the Lehigh University/AT&T Math Contest last year.

The 15 students on that team are ''elite'' math minds, Davis said. But Velingker is the best of the best, capable of doing graduate school-level work, he said.

''He's a little bit shy,'' Davis added. ''When we have these practice sessions, some of the students are very outgoing and sort of show-offy. He just sits back there and works the problems and tells us what the answers are.''

Velingker was one of 250,000 U.S. students to take a first-round multiple-choice test for the math Olympiad this year. A second, tougher test winnowed the contenders down to 12.

''They guaranteed that the answer was between zero and 999, but that doesn't tell you much,'' he said, of the second test. ''It's like multiple choice with 1,000 choices.''

He is slated to go to an invitation-only summer camp in Lincoln, Neb., at the end of June, with the other 11 finalists and other gifted students. Another test, given at the camp, will determine who goes to Athens.

The questions get even tougher in Athens, where Olympiad contestants get nine hours over two days to solve just six problems. Many are proof questions: Students might be given a description of a geometric figure and told to prove that two of the sides are perpendicular.

''Sometimes, the Olympiad questions can get frustrating,'' he said. ''You try different approaches and it doesn't work out for a while.''

Velingker hopes to crack the top six. But if he doesn't, he plans to consider it a learning experience and come back next year. He has other things to do with his summer, anyway: He plays tennis and chess, enjoys computer programming and plays Indian classical music on the harmonium and tabla drum.

He is also looking ahead to college, where he hopes to study engineering at MIT or Caltech.

Of course, Velingker has two more years of high school before he gets there. He said fellow Parkland students are ''mostly positive'' about his math competition fame, though it comes with complications.

''A lot of people are like, 'In half an hour, I have to hand this homework in. Can you show me how to do this?''' he said.


Copyright © 2004, The Morning Call

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