A high school senior who developed a theorem that potentially could apply to code-cracking and artificial intelligence took home the top prize Dec. 9 in the fourth annual Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, which hands out more than half a million dollars in scholarships to high schoolers.

Steven Byrnes, 18, of Lexington, Mass., emerged from five finalists to win a $100,000 scholarship. The competition showcases some of the brightest young minds in the country and inspires students to pursue science and technology-related careers.

For his math project, titled “Poset-Game Periodicity,” Byrnes created and proved a theorem that for years had stumped many mathematicians. Organizers said it represented a breakthrough in a famous poset game called Chomp that was invented in the 1970s. Two-player poset, or partially-ordered set, games are important to the growing field of discrete mathematics for their potential use in artificial intelligence and secure codes on computer networks.

According to Richard Dower, chairman of the science department at the Roxbury Latin School and an advisor to Byrnes on the project, the discovery is important because even though it doesn’t address artificial intelligence and computer security directly, it does provide a new way of thinking that code-crackers and intellectuals now have at their disposal when addressing such issues.

“In mathematics any time you can demonstrate a particular pattern exists, then it becomes easier to find a key to that pattern,” Dower said.

A senior who hopes to study math at Harvard, Byrnes is the only student in the country to win both the U.S. Math Olympiad and the U.S. Physics Olympiad.

The theorem is “sort of a foundation for a new field of math, and where that field will lead, of course, nobody knows,” Byrnes said after an awards ceremony at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Among other finalists whose projects potentially could affect future computer technologies is 18-year-old Allan Chu. The senior from Saratoga High School in California won a $40,000 third-place scholarship for his project “LZAC Lossless Data Compression: A Novel Approach to Minimum Redundancy Coding.” Researchers said the new algorithm, which compresses data on the internet, could ease web traffic congestion and increase wireless application performance.

In all, five students won individual prizes, totaling $240,000 in scholarships.

A dozen other students competed for scholarships as pairs, with Juliet Girard, 18, and Roshan Prabhu, 16, both seniors in Jersey City, N.J., sharing a $100,000 prize for identifying genes that contribute to early flowering time in rice. Their finding could increase crop production and benefit regions with shorter growing seasons.

“In terms of practical application, you can’t beat this one,” said Joel Spencer, a math and computer science professor at the Courant Institute at New York University and one of 11 judges.

The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) said it supports the Siemens Westinghouse Competition and others like it as means to foster creative thinking among students and to recognize those who’ve demonstrated an outstanding commitment to knowledge.

“The National Science Teachers Association supports science competitions such as the Siemens Westinghouse Math Science and Technology Competition because it gives students opportunities to explore beyond the confines of the typical classroom,” said Carla L. Daniels, public affairs specialist for the organization. “NSTA supports engaging students in inquiry-based science learning, and competitions are a good way of encouraging scientific exploration and creative, critical thinking.”

The 17 students feted in Washington this weekend were chosen from more than 1,100 entries.

“These students are some of the most brilliant young people in America,” said Albert Hoser, chairman and chief executive officer of the Siemens Foundation. “It’s inspiring to see these extraordinary high school students working at the highest levels in science, mathematics, and technology at such an early age.”

For the competitors, Craig Venter, a leader in sequencing the humane genome, lent some parting words of advice: “You’re standing at the threshold of very promising futures. … Cast aside your fears and doubts, and challenge yourself everyday to take risks, to resist the temptation to conform to those around you.”

Links:

Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology
http://www.siemens-foundation.org/science/default.html

National Science Teachers Association
http://www.nsta.org