New Jersey teen wins top math contest

MATHCOUNTS champ solved word problems before he could read

When he was a toddler, Marvin Mao's favorite part of the grocery store wasn't the candy or cereal aisle. It was the checkout line.

It was there, his mother recalls, that he would grab the change and the receipt — and spot errors.

“He’d point out to the cashier that certain items were on discount, and they were calculated wrong on the receipt,” said Helen Zhang, Marvin's mother. “Before then, I always trusted that cash registers didn’t make mistakes. Marvin proved otherwise when he was still sitting in a shopping cart child seat.”

Zhang soon learned that Marvin’s math skills were extraordinary, and over the past 10 years, she’s nurtured and helped him develop those skills by sending him to math camps, enrolling him in clubs and entering him in competitions.

Marvin, now 14, is the 2021 Raytheon Technologies MATHCOUNTS National Champion. He won that title – and a $10,000 scholarship – by achieving the highest score on a written test taken by 223 of the top young mathematicians in the U.S.

Since 2009, the former Raytheon Company and now Raytheon Technologies have served as the title sponsor of the MATHCOUNTS National Championship. The competition brings together the most mathematically gifted middle schoolers in the country, encouraging students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“We sponsor events like MATHCOUNTS to help in creating a pipeline of young Americans to become highly skilled, early career professionals in companies like Raytheon Technologies,” said Dr. Nandi Leslie, a Raytheon Intelligence & Space engineering fellow who holds a Ph.D. in applied and computational mathematics from Princeton University. “One way we can help to develop mathematicians, who think quantitatively and computationally, is by nurturing their mathematical interests, which is exactly what we’re doing with MATHCOUNTS. By participating in events like this and presenting prestigious awards, it helps motivate and incentivize young people to pursue their interests.”

For the past three years, Marvin has gone to the Davidson Academy Online, a school for gifted children based in Nevada. The school allowed Marvin to take advanced mathematics courses meant for high school students. For example, in the sixth grade, he took Calculus. So where do you go from Calculus?

“More calculus,” Marvin said.

This fall he will be a freshman at Bergen County Academies, a public magnet high school in Hackensack, New Jersey, which was named the No. 1 public high school in the U.S. in 2021 by Niche, a ranking and review website for schools, colleges, neighborhoods and cities.

Zhang got her first clue that Marvin was gifted when she got an unexpected phone call at work from Marvin’s Montessori school in New Jersey.

“It scared me a little bit because Marvin has asthma, and I work in Manhattan,” Zhang said. “But that wasn’t the case. It was the school’s director Ms. Brenda Meehan, and she said, ‘Listen Helen, I’ve been teaching for 30 years, and I’ve never met anyone like Marvin.’ She suggested I put him in a program or a school for gifted children.”

In the meantime, Zhang discovered that her daughter Ivy excelled in math, as well, after she won first place for girls in 4th grade at the Bergen County Academies, so Zhang decided to start bringing Ivy to the Academies’ math team on Sundays. One of the coaches there noticed that then 4-year-old Marvin seemed very interested in what the older kids were doing, suggesting that Zhang let him attend a session or two.

“He said, ‘You go relax, do some shopping and we’ll take care of Marvin for a few hours,’” Zhang said. “When I came back to pick up Ivy and Marvin, the coach walked up to me with several papers. The children had competed in a Continental Mathematics League exercise, and Marvin got more of the problems correct than most of the elementary schoolers. Many of these were ‘word problems,’ and Marvin couldn’t read most of the words, so we were a little bit surprised he was able to solve the problems without context.”

Marvin is still considering where he might go to college and what he'd like to do as a career. Zhang said that he’s expressed interest in chemistry, and he’s really interested in coding and computing, and ideally, he’d like to combine that with math. Last summer, he learned to code in a programming language called Lean that is very math intensive.

“I am leaving it up to Marvin on his future, and I am not pushing anything on him,” Zhang said. “He’s free to choose whatever he wants to do.”

This was the last year Marvin was eligible for the MATHCOUNTS competition. He entered at the urging of Dan Plotnick, the Bergen County Academies math coach who recognized Marvin's skill at an early age. Marvin agreed, and won the competition. And, while he won the competition, you won't hear him say he defeated the others.

“Marvin really doesn’t like to think that he has beaten other kids,” Zhang said. “He says all the kids are good, and it’s just one exam. Anybody could get lucky and win. He really doesn’t like the limelight, but he’s learning that it comes with winning a competition like this.”