Education

A foundation had a global search for teen math geniuses. It found 3 in Charlotte.

Three Charlotte area students named World Science Scholars

After a global search for teens with math skill and the curiosity to solve science challenges, the World Science Fair chose 45 for their inaugural networking program. Three are young women from Charlotte.
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After a global search for teens with math skill and the curiosity to solve science challenges, the World Science Fair chose 45 for their inaugural networking program. Three are young women from Charlotte.

Not long ago the New York-based World Science Foundation went looking for teens who can shape the future. They sought outstanding math skills, a creative mindset and a desire to network with leading scientists to solve problems.

In other words, “we’re cultivating genius,” says Mark German, who led the quest for the first 45 “world science scholars.”

His group found three of them in Charlotte:

Aakriti Lakshmanan, a sophomore at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Ardrey Kell High, competes on various math teams and has won awards for her research on water-related science projects.

Vievie Romanelli, a 16-year-old who is home-schooled and takes classes as Central Piedmont Community College, speaks eloquently on her passion for math as an art form.

Saanchi Sampath, a Myers Park High sophomore, is a chess enthusiast who gives lessons and leads her school chess club.

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Three Charlotte high school students have been named World Science Scholars (left to right): Saanchi Sampath, a sophomore at Myers Park High; Genevieve “Vievie” Romanelli, who is home-schooled; and Aakriti Lakshmanan, a sophomore at Ardrey Kell High. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

Beyond their passion for math there’s no common thread linking the trio, who hadn’t met until they came to Discovery Place for an Observer interview. It’s not hard to notice one commonality — in a field traditionally dominated by males, all three are female — but German said that’s a coincidence, too. The world scholar cohort — mostly from across the United States but with a handful from Canada, Mexico, United Arab Emirates and India — is about two-thirds male, he said.

The program is new enough that the three Charlotte students struggle to define what it means. They know it begins in earnest with the World Science Festival in New York City this summer, where scientists, artists and celebrities spend a week exploring and celebrating science in every format imaginable.

“From what I’ve heard the World Science Festival is a place where people that are doing great things in science can meet and discuss their things,” said Lakshmanan. “And it’s also a place where like normal civilians can go and learn about science in a creative way.”

The science festival began in 2008, funded by the Simons, Alfred P. Sloan and John Templeton foundations. It has branched out to other science-related activities, with the World Science Scholars program designed to recruit talented high school sophomores and juniors to tackle projects and build a network of peers and mentors.

“In the process, students expand their perspectives, and new pathways open along which their genius can flourish, facilitating their potential to spark revolutionary breakthroughs,” the program’s website says.

Finding the scholars

German, the festival’s director of education strategies and initiatives, said his group contacted individuals and groups known for working with gifted math students, including Duke University’s Talent Identification Program, to get the word out. He wouldn’t say how many students applied, but says it was “a very competitive field.”

Students had to provide recommendations from parents and a teacher, and had to explain why they thought they had the talent to qualify. “We got everything from essays to artwork and lines of code,” German said. “We’re really looking for these students who have that curiosity.”

Lakshmanan recalls writing about the Shoelace Theorem, a formula for finding the area of a polygon.

Most teens wouldn’t find that an accessible topic of conversation. One of the challenges for advanced mathematical minds is connecting with peers, something the scholars program is designed to facilitate.

Romanelli says she discovered her love of math when she was exposed to “an order on the rational numbers where you can essentially flatten it.” Her enthusiastic elaboration on that theme is virtually incomprehensible to a layperson, but her conclusion rings clear: “It just blew my mind. It was so cool to me that you could do that. And I was just, like, I want to do this forever.”

“Personally what I enjoy about math is it’s kind of an art,” Romanelli says. “Especially when you’re proving things. You’re kind of creating something new, something that’s perfect, something that has to be true.”

Why Charlotte?

Neither German nor the three Charlotte scholars can say for sure why this area was so well represented. But as the teens talk, it’s clear they’ve been exposed to a wide range of opportunities.

The Charlotte region is rich in school options, and between the three they’ve tapped all types.

Sampath has attended CMS schools from kindergarten on. She credits her success and enthusiasm to a series of strong teachers, including some who taught summer classes. She took the SAT in seventh grade as part of Duke’s talent search, and says while she was preparing it struck her that math wasn’t just something she could earn high scores in but something she loved.

Before coming to Ardrey Kell High, Lakshmanan attended Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a K-8 charter school for highly gifted students. She says math competitions, including Math Olympiad and MathCounts, connected her with friends who shared her interest, at a time when some students drift away into social life. “I finally felt like I’d found my place and I found something I’m good at,” she recalls.

Romanelli has attended private schools, taken online classes, attended community college and been taught by her mother, who has a math degree. She’s fascinated by the connections between math and such seemingly unrelated as philosophy and Latin, which she describes as a complex and elegant code.

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Saanchi Sampath, Genevieve “Vievie” Romanelli and Aakriti Lakshmanan (left to right) met for the first time at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte, where Lakshmanan was a STEM intern. Diedra Laird dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

All three have also participated in competitions and enrichment activities outside of school. Sampath, for instance was a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) intern at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte.

But a mystery still remains: The three Charlotteans are the only scholars from North Carolina, despite the university- and technology-rich environment found in the Triangle.

Girls in STEM

The three scholars say they’ve benefited from ongoing efforts to increase female participation in STEM fields. But they remain in the minority in many settings.

Sampath says she was the only girl in her AP computer science class. Lakshmanan says boys make up the majority on math teams and in advanced math classes.

Romanelli says when she tells people she wants to work in math or computer science, she gets remarks about how easy it will be for her to get a job as a diversity hire. “People’s vision of STEM students is changing,” she said, “but very slowly.”

The World Science Festival is trying to be part of the change; the 2018 events honored trailblazing women in science. But in the first class of 45 scholars, 29 are male and 16 female.

The scholars program has started offering online classes. Still to come is the trip to New York City for the festival — all three say they plan to go — and the opportunity to develop group projects with their counterparts. Halfway through, the best projects will be chosen for support from faculty and teaching fellows.

Ultimately, the goal is for students who complete the program to become part of a professional and alumni network. The foundation is taking applications for the 2019 program through Feb. 28; find details at WorldScienceFestival.com.

The Charlotte trio can’t wait to dive in.

“I’m really excited to go see the other people from across the world,” Lakshmanan said.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.
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