Adding up to success

Brookings high-schooler wins Spirit of Ramanujan Award

BROOKINGS – A Brookings High School freshman is one of seven in the world selected by a math-talent scouting group to receive recognition and aid in getting the resources they need to further their talent.

The group, called The Spirit of Ramanujan Talent Initiative, will help Brookings High freshman Serena An pay for math summer programs, up to $5,000. Some of the programs she’d like to put that money toward include Ohio State University’s Ross Mathematics Program, MathILy-ER, the Hampshire College Summer Studies in Mathematics and the Canada/U.S.A. Mathcamp.

The Spirit of Ramanujan Talent Initiative describes itself online as a means of finding and fostering the mathematical talents of promising young students “who lack traditional resources.”

It’s basically a grant program that students from around the world can apply for, and it’s only been around for a few years. The other chosen students came from California, Texas, Qatar and India.

The initiative, led by Dr. Ken Ono, is named after Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian math prodigy who had no formal training in the subject. When a University of Cambridge professor recognized his talent, Ramanujan went on to make substantial contributions to the field of mathematics.

According to eighth-grade math teacher Shannon Renkly, Ono first heard of Serena’s affinity for math after speaking with the director of another math competition, Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?

That competition is done by taking a series of 10-question tests. Serena earned a 10 out of 10 in the first round and was invited to participate in the second round.

There, she got nine out of 10 correct, “which is fantastic,” Renkly said. “But unfortunately, she didn’t make the final cut of that competition. But Ken Ono had heard from the director of that competition how high her score was and had mentioned to me that they’d never seen a score that strong, especially from a student in South Dakota.”

In the middle of November, Ono requested additional information from Renkly, and she sent a reference letter. In the letter, she described Serena’s problem-solving abilities, persistence and passion for math. This was done in spite of the deadline for applications having passed.

“The application deadline was Oct. 31, and he told her to apply anyway, even though it was closed,” Renkly said.

And applying was a no-brainer, Serena said.

There are two means of applying for the program: receiving a letter from Ono or by solving math problems on a particular website.

Serena also wrote a cover letter and a statement to go along with her application. In her statement, she discussed her work with the Brookings Math Circle, a math group she and friend Samyok Nepal had started.

“One of the goals of the Brookings Math Circle is to show everyone the intrigue of math,” Serena explained. “Math can be seen as maybe boring at school, but I really like to show people that there’s more than just school math.”

She and Samyok came up with their own curriculum, website and flyers to spread the word about the group, which meets weekly at the Brookings Public Library during the summer.

She hopes to continue this group every summer until she graduates.

Things like this probably went a long way to showing the self-motivation and drive Serena has, as well as a passion for math.

“It showed a lot of commitment,” especially since most eighth-graders leave the middle school in the past when they move on to the high school, Renkly said. “Both Samyok and Serena were able to look past that and saw the benefit of being able to learn from teaching.”

“Teaching is one of the best ways to learn the material or to just get a better understanding,” Serena agreed.

When she got word of the results in an email two weeks ago, she was thrilled to find her name among the seven recipients in the world.

“I’m really happy with it, and also really grateful. I think the purpose of this program is really unique, and I do like what it does, how it will provide resources to people who might not have as many resources,” she said.

Having seen Serena grow through her time in Mathcounts, Renkly said, “I’m extremely proud of Serena. … I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Serena through Mathcounts from when she came to the middle school in seventh and eighth grade.”

Contact Eric Sandbulte at [email protected]


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