Update: Shaun Regenbaum has received word that he made the top 15 but did not win.
Shaun is a finalist in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, which asked students ages 13 to 18 to create a video up to 10 minutes long explaining a challenging concept in the life sciences, physics or mathematics in the most engaging, illuminating and imaginative way.
Any student in that age group in the world could enter as long as he or she could create a presentation in English and submit it by Oct. 7. More than 2,000 qualified submissions were received from 86 countries. Shaun is one of two Atlanta-area finalists; the other is 17-year-old Sean Hackett.
Shaun learned about the competition through the Khan Academy, an online math learning resource available to students worldwide.
“Sometimes I’m on it for schoolwork, but sometimes it’s just for fun,” Shaun said.
“In the third grade, there was an Israeli exchange professor visiting the school,” he said, “and he really gave me a boost in math. Suddenly, I saw how math leads from one thing to the next, how all math is related. For example, multiplication is really just another way to think about addition. It just makes it easier to do advanced notation.”
His 10-minute entry on the concept of infinitesimals was inspired by his AP calculus teacher, Bill Shillito. The video explores the question of whether 0.999999 (continuing forever) is equal to 1.
“Mr. Shillito was talking about limits. In calculus you have to find the slope of a curve, but this is something that isn’t usually done with regular numbers,” Shaun said. “Mr. Shillito said there’s another method that would accomplish the same thing, more intuitive but less common. That led me to nonstandard analysis.”
If Shaun wins the $250,000 scholarship, Shillito and AJA also will be victors. The teacher who inspired the winning student will get $50,000, and the school could receive a state-of-the art science lab valued at $100,000.
“Shaun is taking four AP classes this year, which is a heavy course load, and doing all of it incredibly well. He’s bright. He’s sincere. He’s passionate. He takes his Judaism very seriously, along with his STEM courses,” said Paul Oberman, AJA’s associate head of school at its Upper School. “He is also a hard worker and a good friend.”
AJA’s coordinator for science, technology, engineering and math, Jonah Queen, said Shaun’s achievement is the sort of educational experience AJA’s STEM program was designed to inspire. “We want to give our students the tools and the encouragement to innovate and explore the sciences in any direction that interests them.”
Shaun isn’t sure about his career path but thinks he would enjoy studying quantum mechanics. “I do like explaining things to people, but I don’t really like to stand in front of large groups of people and lecture.”
He is excited about the contest without seeming overly nervous. “In the end,” he said, “everything’s going to work out the way it works out.”
The winner will be announced live on the National Geographic Channel during the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony in Silicon Valley at 10 p.m. ET Nov. 8.