Winburn Middle School student Austin Li says becoming a two-time state math champion didn't require him to know a bunch of complicated formulas.
What it took, he said, was a good knowledge of "counting, probability and number theory."
Austin, an eighth-grader, has won the state Mathcounts competition two years in a row.
He placed first among 159 middle school "mathletes" from around Kentucky at the annual Mathcounts contest on March 21 in Louisville, earning a four-year full-tuition scholarship to either the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville and a trip to the national competition in Boston.
Mathcounts requires participants to solve mathematical problems individually in written form, then to work together as a team. The national program is aimed at increasing interest in math to help develop "a technically literate population essential to U.S. global competitiveness and the quality of life," according to a news release.
State Mathcounts coordinator Marcie Fisher, who works for the Kentucky Society of Professional Engineers, said it isn't typical for a student to win two years in a row, but repeat winners do come along from time to time.
The students who achieve that feat are extremely high performers, working algebra, statistics and calculus problems under competitive pressure.
"The kids can answer the questions before they can get the questions asked," Fisher said.
Austin said he thinks the key to his success at Mathcounts is "the stuff I study. You don't necessarily have to know a bunch of trig functions."
In the team competition, Winburn placed first in the state out of 28 teams, repeating its performance from last year.
Coach Paula Mlinar, who teaches math at Winburn, said the competition provides an extra push to students who already are "very self-motivated."
Mlinar said one of her favorite parts of it is watching the students compare notes after the "fierce" competition.
"They come out and they're just buzzing and debating," Mlinar said.
Math, she said, is "something that so many people hate, and they see the beauty of it."
Austin and the other three top competitors from Kentucky, including Insik Lee of Beaumont Middle School, who placed fourth in the state, will represent the state at Mathcounts nationals in Boston in May.
Last year's competition was in Orlando.
Austin learned last year that competition at nationals is much stiffer than at state, and his goal this year is simply to try to improve over last year's scores, he said.
His little brother, Dylan Li, is a sixth-grader who also participates in Mathcounts. Austin said Dylan placed 17th in the state this year, about the same as Austin did when he first competed two years ago.
"I think he's on the right track," Austin said.
He's not sure what career he'll pursue, but Austin expects it will be something related to math. He said he loves the feeling he gets after struggling over a difficult problem and finally finding the solution.
"When I do solve it, I feel really proud," he said.