McCallie senior Allen Liu initially thought the Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology was out of his reach, but he’s now a finalist in the national contest.
Liu and his research partner, Brentwood, Tennessee, student Gabrielle Liu, made the top 12 in the competition.
The project involves a new mathematical concept for improving the running time in neural networks—a type of artificial intelligence computing system used in new technologies, such as facial recognition and driverless cars.
Neural networks are modeled loosely after the human brain and can be trained to perform certain tasks.
The problem, Allen said, is that it’s a long, complex process to train them. His project aims to alleviate that dilemma.
“If we can simplify it, there are so many applications we can unlock,” he said.
The duo went to Washington, D.C., to pitch their project, and the winner will be announced Tuesday.
There’s $500,000 in scholarships at stake, including two top prizes of $100,000. Each of the finalists will receive at least $25,000 in scholarship money, according to a news release.
No matter the outcome, Allen said he and his teammate want to continue their work.
The duo already won a $6,000 scholarship. They were among 101 students selected to compete in regional competitions across the country out of a pool of more than 1,860 projects submitted to the competition.
“Allen’s work on this project is nothing short of incredible,” McCallie Headmaster Lee Burns said in a prepared statement. “For a high school senior to conduct research that could change the nature of a growing technology like facial recognition is a great accomplishment, and we’re excited about his team’s chances at the finals.”
Last week, Allen said he was looking forward to meeting all the other finalists who have made “astounding contributions” with their submissions.
The 17-year-old, also a violinist who has played at Carnegie Hall, has had a passion for math since he was a child. His father taught him to use the subject as a way to think about creative problem-solving.
“It’s changed the way I think about the world,” he said about his math studies.
His strength in math combined with his partner’s talent for science was an important alliance, he said.
“What this competition has taught me is that teamwork is really powerful,” he said. “Without my partner, I wouldn’t have made it to this state … The other thing I [learned] is to really not be afraid of dreaming big. Originally, I was scared of this competition.”