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TMCNet:  Teen awarded $100K science scholarship

[December 06, 2012]

Teen awarded $100K science scholarship

Dec 06, 2012 (The Eagle - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- According to Guinness World Records, the fastest time to solve a Rubik's Cube is 6.24 seconds. Kensen Shi can solve a Rubik's Cube in 13 seconds, and that's just what he's managed via boredom.

The 17-year-old high school senior said he enjoys solving them as a hobby, and added, "No, I'm good," about going for the fastest time.

His focus, instead, is on a project much more groundbreaking than topping the record for solving the twisty puzzle that ushered in the '80s.

For more than a year, Shi has been working on an algorithm that allows robots to navigate around obstacles and may lead to more seamless video game design, and even cars that can drive themselves.

Shi was awarded a $100,000 scholarship on Tuesday for his research and findings through the Siemens Foundation, which provides more than $7 million annually in educational support across the nation.

Since, the A&M Consolidated student has become quite the star.

"I guess it's kind of exciting, but tiring in a sense," Shi said.

He said he went in to the competition expecting to be a semi-finalist at best. But after submitting a research paper, designing a poster exhibition, delivering an oral presentation, and enduring a nerve-wrecking question-and-answer session, he came out as the top competitor.

"It was definitely surprising to me," Shi said. "As I progressed I was quite amazed, and quite surprised and excited." The algorithm Shi developed is called the "Lazy Toggle Probabilistic Roadmap Method." It's the combination of two previously computed algorithms into a more efficient one that eliminates steps used in the other formulas, Shi said.

"We randomized approaches with some heuristics that I developed and some techniques that prevent unnecessary computation," he said. "Parts of [the roadmap] need to be validated. I save unnecessary computation by delaying the checking of this roadmap. That really gives the name 'Lazy,' because we delay the checking." Though the project was largely individual, Shi said Dr. Nancy Amato, a professor in the department of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M, and Jory Denny, a Ph.D. student, aided in his success.

Amato said Shi contacted her in the spring of 2011 and said he was interested in doing research.

"He showed up an hour after school let out for the summer," Amato laughed. "He participated in an intensive research experience all summer." Amato is co-director for the Parasol Laboratory on the Texas A&M campus, which focuses on next-generation computing. Shi, alongside six faculty members, about 45 graduate students, and ten undergraduate students study in the multidisciplinary environment to develop several new computation projects.

"I had never had a high school student before," Amato said. "I didn't really know what to do, so I treated [him] like an undergrad." Shi was paired with Denny, who did the majority of the detailed work with the high school student. Amato said Shi's project is an extension of what Denny submitted for his honors thesis.

"Kensen is really talented and I think a lot of that is due to his own initiative," Amato said.

Amato said she, Denny, and Shi submitted their research paper on the Lazy Toggle PRM to a major international robotics conference, and are hoping to be published.

"It's an amazing thing for an undergrad [to be published], but for a high school student it's completely amazing." The professor said she and about 10 students crammed in her office Tuesday to watch the webcast of Shi receiving top honors and the hefty scholarship at the conference in Washington.

"We are completely thrilled," she said. "Kensen is really amazing. He's extremely down-to-earth. He's a great member in the lab ... He has a good sense of humor. He's just a really nice and humble person, I would say." Shi said he's excited about the scholarship, and so are his parents. He hasn't quite decided yet, he said, where he will be attending college.

"I definitely would like to major in computer science and continue scientific research," Shi said. "I'm not sure of the specifics." When Shi isn't developing scientific breakthroughs, he said he enjoys swimming and playing piano. He's also president of the math club and captain of the science bowl team at A&M Consolidated.

___ (c)2012 The Eagle (Bryan, Texas) Visit The Eagle (Bryan, Texas) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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