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Mathematically Speaking, It All Adds Up in Room Without a View

June 05, 1986|GEORGE STEIN

Some rooms at Malaga Cove Intermediate School offer sweeping views of the ocean, but that was not where math coaches put Royce Peng and Stan Liao for special after-school math workouts.

Coaches Beverly Mairs and Phyllis Thom didn't want their prize students daydreaming.

Instead, Royce and Stan studied in Room 5, where the walls are covered with formulas and pictures of famous scientists--and the view faces inland.

The concentrated effort paid off.

The two Palos Verdes Peninsula students, plus two from elsewhere in California, boosted California to first place in a recent national mathematics competition.

Pitted against 750,000 of the country's best seventh- and eighth-grade students, Royce placed fourth and Stan was sixth in individual rankings.

Still, Stan thinks he could have done better; he could have been first.

"I knew I could do the problems," he said ruefully, "but I just made careless mistakes."

"It wasn't that hard," Royce agreed. "I was so nervous. I was thinking, 'Just try your best.' "

That attitude helped propel the California team to first place, said Coach Mairs, a Malaga Cove teacher.

"They put a lot of pressure on themselves to do well. They have grown up with the expectation that they do the best they can and then a little more," she said.

The sponsors of the Mathcounts contest--the CNA Insurance Companies and the National Society of Professional Engineers--hope the contest will encourage more youngsters to do well in mathematics, according to Jim Stewart, a retired Northrop engineer who is South Bay coordinator for the contest.

"What we are trying to do, aside from identifying those kids who are best, (is) to stimulate those kids who feel they don't really have a chance," Stewart said.

To spread the glory, Stewart said, the South Bay is divided into three strips. The winners get shoulder patches and the top three teams from each area get T-shirts--"something they could wear around school to show they made it," he said.

In a self-conscious mimicry of sports, the T-shirts are stamped "Property of the Mathletic Department" and the sponsors want to call the winners "mathletes," he said.

Somehow, though, the term "hasn't caught on, not in any big way," Stewart said.

Stan and Royce were on a Palos Verdes team that competed against 60 schools statewide.

"And we won! We won against all the magnet schools and all the private schools," said Mairs. "I think it was quite a coup."

The top four students in the state became a team. Jeff Wall from San Luis Obispo was first in state competition and Royce and Stan tied for second with Reed Galbraith of Fremont.

"We met on weekends here at Malaga Cove," Mairs said. "We had to get them used to working as a team with four strong members. On each of their teams, they had been the strongest."

It is a coincidence that two of the nation's top math whiz kids live just two miles from one another on the Peninsula, but their spectacular performance is no accident. Stan and Royce showed exceptional mathematical ability from early childhood--and parents and teachers have gone to great lengths to encourage them.

Royce, 13, the son of Dr. Shi Kuang Peng, a pathologist at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, learned multiplication tables at 4. "I've always been better than everybody else in math," he said. A student at Ridgecrest Intermediate School, he goes to Rolling Hills High School for a course in algebra and trigonometry.

At home in Rancho Palos Verdes, Royce doesn't do household chores, concentrating instead on schoolwork, an Apple II-Plus computer and the violin. He watches television perhaps an hour or two a week.

Stan, who moved here from Taiwan in September--has gone even further in math.

When Stan was 3, he could tell time, do addition and subtraction and count to 10,000 forwards and backwards. And he knew all about the concept of zero, said his mother, Chih-Mei Liao.

"Who wants to be first in the shower?" his mother asked Stan and his 7-year-old sister one day. "I do!" his sister shouted. But Stan wanted to be in ahead of her.

"I want to be zeroth," declared the 3-year-old.

His parents--his father, Mei-Song Liao, a university professor of physics, and mother, a college teacher of nursing--wanted to make sure he went to good schools. So his mother and the children moved to the capital, Taipei, while his father remained at his position in southern Taiwan. The family got together on weekends.

By 5, Stan was winning citywide abacus contests. In the sixth grade, he wrote a book about computer programming. Life was not all mathematics. Stan took up the violin, too. Soon he was winning contests for that. His favorite composer is Mendelssohn.

In September, dissatisfied with the schools in Taipei, Stan's mother brought him to this country where he enrolled at Malaga Cove Intermediate.

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