By Doug Ireland
---- — SALEM — Not many high school students enjoy solving math problems for fun.
But Jonathan Shum does and it’s paid off. He just never expected to be honored for doing something he loves — trigonometry.
It all started last year when the 17-year-old Salem High School senior was the top finisher in his school’s Trig Star mathematics competition, an annual contest sponsored by the National Society of Professional Surveyors.
He then finished first in the statewide competition in Concord last spring.
“I was pretty surprised,” Shum recalled yesterday. “Then, they said I received a perfect score — that shocked me.”
The surprises didn’t end there.
Shum was New Hampshire’s sole representative in the national competition, taking the test at Salem High. He was confident, but not sure how he would fare against the top high school math students in the nation.
He finished eighth in the country — it’s the best a Granite State student has done in the national competition in about 25 years, according to Brad St. Germain, director of the math and science programs at Salem High.
“It’s rare to have that kind of acumen,” St. Germain said. “That’s pretty special.”
Last week, Shum was honored at the school by John Chagnon of the New Hampshire Land Surveyors Association, receiving a $1,000 scholarship for his first-place finish in the state competition.
But for Shum, a co-captain of the school’s math team, it’s not a big deal. He takes it all in stride.
“I’ve been congratulated a lot,” he said.
The National Honor Society student was named vice president of the school’s Biotechnology Club and participated in the St. Paul’s Advanced Studies Program last summer, studying robotics and artificial intelligence. Today, he’s looking forward to the math team’s first competition of the year.
Shum, the son of Tony and Vicky Shum, plans to major in computer science when he graduates and enter the high-tech industry after college.
He’s now busy applying to colleges; his top choice is Northeastern University.
Shum attributes some of his success to his parents, who he said pushed him at an early age to challenge himself. His father is a software engineer.
“Ever since I was real young, my parents had me do math problems all the time,” he said.
But doing math problems wasn’t actually his idea of a good time.
“As time went on, it got easier and it was really fun,” Shum said.
He said he especially enjoys the challenge of tackling trigonometry problems. During the competitions, Shum was timed as he rushed to solve five or six problems, St. Germain said.
“I really enjoyed it,” Shum said. “It’s not just equations, it’s all these shapes. ... You have to think out of the box a lot.”
Shum has had other help along the way as well — from Salem High teachers such as St. Germain, Gregory Paris, Tasneem Mohammed and Danielle MacDonald. He’s taking advanced calculus this year — the highest level of math available at Salem High.
But, of course, most of the credit goes to Shum and his exceptional problem-solving skills, St. Germain said.
“It’s the way he approaches the problems and solves them,” St. Germain said. “These are the kinds of things businesses and colleges are looking for.”