Translated from the Chinese Herald 23/11/2013

Another Breakthrough of a Young Scientist

At the TEDx Auckland Youth conference last month, Tristan Owain Pang, who has just turned 12, delivered a very impressive speech, “Quest is fun. Be Nosy” to over 500 people at the Auckland Museum. The talk was about how and why he could achieve top grades in the Cambridge International Examination as well as self-learning and accelerating. He explained these with his exploration of science and mathematics. His distinctive analysis and his understanding of maths have gained applause and special attention. Audiences requested photo taking and autographs from him after his talk.

TED or TEDx is a non-profit organisation devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading”. It started in 1984 in Silicon Valley as a conference bringing people from three categories: Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED or TEDx conferences bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers who are challenged to give the talk of their lives. Some of the renowned speakers were New Zealand former Prime Minister Helen Clark, former US President  Bill Clinton and Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates. Tristan was one of New Zealand’s youngest TEDx talk speakers.

What makes this boy so special and be able to step onto the stage at TEDx? Newspaper articles reported his achievements two years ago, which attracted the attention from people all around. Year 5 Tristan featured in the NZ Herald when, as a nine-year-old, he top-scored in an international Cambridge mathematics exam usually sat by students in Year 11. He plans to eventually work in the science research field, most likely in quantum physics or medicine. Two years on, what has he been doing?

Challenge the authority

Tristan is indeed extraordinary; as demonstrated in his speech, he was interested in exploration. Three months ago, he was recognised at the Niwa Auckland City Science and Technology Fair with his awarded project “Triple Layer Milk Bottle – is it effective?” that put claims behind Fonterra’s new light-proof milk bottles to the test. Tristan carried out three lots of testing on the new Anchor triple-layer bottles for taste, light and acidity.

The first two received positive results, but he said “something funny” occurred during the acid test when the milk was left outside – milk in the triple layer bottle degraded faster.

Fonterra had launched the triple-layer Anchor bottle in March, saying it protects milk from light and keeps it fresher and tasting better for longer.

Tristan’s project has been praised by University of Auckland and Fonterra scientists, and he now plans to carry out further repetitions of the experiment.

Fonterra scientist and brands innovation manager Olaf van Daalen said the work was of a very high calibre.

However, Mr Van Daalen said their own testing had shown the rate of temperature change in the old and new bottles was exactly the same.

“Even a very small difference in the starting condition of the milk will make a big difference to how quickly it degrades.”

Professor Conrad Perera of the University of Auckland’s School of Chemical Studies said the experiment would need to be repeated a number of times to draw any conclusions.

“The budding scientist needs to be congratulated and encouraged for his enthusiasm and enterprise … we hope he will think of doing food science when he is ready to enter the university.” Professor Perera said.

This young child has shown the scientist calibre – not afraid of authority, has the courage to face the challenge. This is something that needs to be encouraged.

 The whizz kid

Tristan is a Year 7 student at Ficino School. Two years ago, when he was in Year 5, he sat the IGCSE mathematics exam through the Cambridge international exam system and top-scored with 97 percent. Tristan was New Zealand’s youngest-ever candidate – and quite possibly the world’s – to sit the exam, normally done by students in Year 11. He did these outside his school hours. Most of his mathematical knowledge was self-learned. At the age of five, before he started primary school, he had already done Year 11 maths and has read all sorts of books at a very advanced level.

On top of maths, he is also a science genius. He was interested in the profound modern sciences like relativity, quantum, atom and molecule from a very early age. As long as it is not visible at first glance, he would like to explore it. He is interested in time travel as well. He wonders what would happen if we travel to the past or go to the future.

Perhaps it is his inquisitiveness nature that makes him keep exploring the unknown.

Tristan has many interests. On top of science, he also likes English, science, philosophy, Sanskrit, drama, piano and swimming. Sanskrit is known as the most difficult language in the world; however, he likes the challenge.

He is a cadet of St John and a squad member of the swimming club. He also likes tennis, soccer and table tennis, but his greatest interest is reading. He likes to work on the computer, but he seldom plays computer games.

Tristan was referred to a psychologist by his kindi for assessment. The result of the assessment showed that Tristan has exceptional gifted abilities for thinking and reasoning, both with language concepts and for visual / spatial reasoning. Scholastically, he was well ahead of his peers. He was found to have an overall score at the 99.99th percentile with IQ 163. An average adult’s IQ is between 90 and 110; 120 is considered to be intelligent. An IQ above 160 is extremely rare. Scientists believe that Einstein’s IQ was 160.

 Family education

Mrs Pang, Tristan’s mum, said his son exhibited a keen interest in learning from a very young age. “He is a very self-discipline child with very high concentration span. He pays attention to every detail. He started picking up calculation when he was a one year old; by two, he started reading independently; by four, he had solved all the brain teaser puzzles available on the market like ‘Think Fun’ games, which are designed for ages 8 to adult. I think it helped him to develop his problem-solving skills.

“Later on, he found those type of games were no longer challenging, so I put lots of very advanced science and maths books, and chapter fiction books next to his toys. The books aroused his great interest. In his young mind, he thought reading was also a game. A book is a type of toy.

“Tristan teaches himself on his own … we leave it up to him to decide how far he wants to extend himself,” Mrs Pang said, “also, we won’t pay too much attention to the minor details. For example, the format of working out a maths problem. As long as he can fully understand the concept, we will just let him move on to the next level. Repetition is something that makes a gifted child lose interest in learning.”

Peter Crompton, Tristan’s principal at Ficino School, said he recognised Tristan’s unique capabilities when he first met him. “I used to teach at Oxford University in the UK and there are some very, very intelligent people there … and Tristan is really special.”

An education expert commented on Tristan, “He should be able to start a more advanced learning, like going to the University of Auckland. With his talent and intelligence, he should demonstrate what he has to them, and they can help him excel and soar.”

Tristan is such a highly intelligent child and is very capable of skipping some school years. However, Tristan’s parents insist their son stay with his year-group at school, so his Cambridge studies are all done outside school hours.

An education expert said, “Many Chinese parents like their child to skip school year. Before skipping the school year, the parent should think carefully about their child’s social needs.”

Another teacher said, “Most gifted students are now buried in our education system, which is something that we cannot control, but we can choose how to extend them in their spare time. We have to respect their choice and develop their interest. There are not many students as talented as Tristan, but nurturing in a right direction can greatly improve a child’s learning interest.”

Tristan’s TEDx talk can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbMKX4J03nY.