Nine-year-old South African mental maths whizz wows in German competition

2018-09-29 10:18
Stiaan Scheepers with his trophy. (Supplied)

Stiaan Scheepers with his trophy. (Supplied)

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WATCH: 10-year-old whizz-kid solves complex maths problems in just seconds

2018-09-18 17:18

Ten-year-old Sbahle Zwane was in preschool when his teacher first noticed his extraordinary gift with numbers. Watch. WATCH

Stiaan Scheepers is the guy you want at your table when the bill arrives and everybody wants to pay separately, because with his mind, he will have it worked out before anyone punches their PIN into their cellphones for the calculator.

The nine-year-old Rustenburg school boy has just returned from Germany where he came second in an international mental maths competition, his achievement sandwiched between the two 11-year-olds who took first and third place.

The Junior Mental Calculation World Championships starts off slowly with some simple additions to warm up the brain and before you know it, the children from across the globe are being asked to divide five digit numbers by three digit numbers, calculate fractions, square roots, and all those things that made your head hurt at school.

They even have to say what day a particular date on a past calendar falls on.

Read: Pupils excel in A+ Students' National Competition

But for this wonder child from Rustenburg, mental maths is not only fun, but a great source of stimulation, comfort, and honour.

His mother Elmarie, bursting with pride and wonder at her son's amazing skill, explained that when Stiaan was two, his father Louis died very suddenly at the age of 42 due to complications following a medical condition.

But before his father died, he suggested to Elmarie that they start finding a place to prepare Stiaan's brother, who was six at the time, for the very high expectations that schools have in terms of mathematics.

The maths preparation school they settled on, called A+ Students, was a very long drive away. When Elmarie happened to mention in passing over the phone that she would be driving with a toddler, they invited her to let Stiaan join the classes too because they start the children off young.

He was just two years and three months old when he started at the school, which uses the Japanese abacus method of mastering numbers and calculations.

Andy Raouna, CEO of A+ Students, explained that they use the Japanese abacus called a Soroban, which combines play and sensory learning.

The children start understanding the concept of numbers with the abacus, then are weaned off it to do mental calculations.

He says this is why a person who was taught numbers using an abacus can sometimes be seen tapping their fingers almost absently as they ponder the calculation in front them.

"In their mind they are moving beads, that's why their fingers move," he explained. "We've lost the ability to do mental calculations, and a lot of people haven't learnt it in the first place," said Raouna, who is also the director of PAMA SA, the local branch of the Pan Pacific Abacus & Mental Arithmetic Association.

At the age of three, the Scheepers family was dealt another blow - Stiaan was diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and had to undergo chemotherapy.

With his immune system low, Stiaan could not go to creche. So, during the difficult treatments, keeping up his mental maths was his only way of holding on to his old routine. He did this through video calls with his teacher and with some help from his mother.

Also read: 'I'm four years old and I have cancer'

When he turned four, he started to feel better again, and could go back to pre-school and to his mental maths classes, but his mother noticed a change in his mental outlook.

Mental maths whizz Stiaan Scheepers. (Supplied)

Nothing was too big of a problem to him.

"He just mentally sees everything differently," said Elmarie. "His attitude is very positive."

She says his work ethic is also something to behold.

He sets his alarm for 05:00 and every day begins with a spot of maths calculations before going off to school. Elmarie says that his teacher, Hanti van Niekerk, is extremely supportive and the two have a strong bond, speaking their own language of incomplete sentences where the one instinctively knows what the other means as they move on to the next step of a calculation.

Being a typical tween though, Stiaan has also seen how this special skill may come in handy when he covets stuff and is known to try his luck with his mother.

Elmarie tells of the time he wanted a Google Play card but she said it was not in the budget.

It took him seconds, after asking what the budget was, to calculate the cost of the shopping and how much pocket money he had, before pointing out that they could actually afford to get the card. She did not say if he got it.

Elmarie is used to this and says he is very direct and not afraid to correct people who have made a factual error.

"He will walk past somebody and hear they are calculating something, and they will say the answer is 13 but Stiaan will say boldly: 'Actually, it's 12.29476.'"

This sometimes disarms people but mostly, they are awed by the boy who still makes time for fun. For him, fun is watching a great maths mind on YouTube. 

And, a week or two before his birthday, he will waft around the house, casually dropping the latest to-the-second countdown to when he can have cake.

Asked how he felt about his great achievement in Germany, a tired Stiaan said: "Very proud."


Read more on:    mahikeng  |  education  |  good news

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