For some people, solving a maths or science problem is like being trapped in a boundless maze, but Andrea Lee Tsz-yan sees it in a different light. The 16-year-old is fascinated by how the universe works, and derives great pleasure in searching for the answers.
The Year 12 Sha Tin College student’s love for numbers and experiments became apparent when she was crowned the world’s IGCSE top scorer in International Mathematics – and the city’s IGCSE top scorer in Coordinated Sciences – last year.
Unlike many students who lose interest in learning due to long study hours, Andrea’s affection for maths has only grown ever since she started attending private tutoring classes during her primary years. “Excelling at maths [from a young age] ... has also motivated me to get better at it,” she told Young Post.
Despite the early recognition of her talent, Andrea did not anticipate her excellent results in the public exam. “I was very surprised,” she said. “I didn’t expect my results to be that good, because it’s really [easy for anyone] to make a few careless mistakes, especially in maths.”
Having studied the extended syllabus, Andrea was assessed on her ability to solve non-calculator and calculator questions, as well as investigation and modelling problems in the exam. The latter tasks – which require students to model patterns observed in everyday life, as well as analyse and extrapolate data – were usually considered the trickiest ones, Andrea revealed. They were not only unpredictable but also very new to the students who only learned them at the beginning of Year 11, the same year they took the exam.
However, she was intrigued by the changing faces of the less-familiar questions. “I think they are very interesting,” she said, while stressing algebra is her favourite. “I find it [amazing] to use letters as a substitute for numbers and solve equations.”
The key to mastering maths, Andrea said, is to understand the concepts thoroughly and apply them while doing as many exercises as you can. She doesn’t recommend learning to solve a problem by repeatedly doing the same question, because such a method wouldn’t equip students with the ability to transfer their knowledge to new situations.
“If you’re stuck on a question, come back to it later. And make sure you have at least 15 minutes to look through all your answers [in the exam],” added the maths prodigy.
Andrea’s second favourite in the IGCSE was chemistry, one of three subjects which came under Coordinated Sciences and involved plenty of calculations. Aside from understanding theoretical knowledge and balancing equations, she also had a great time experimenting in the laboratory with her peers – especially when she was taught to determine the concentration of a base solution in a flask by neutralising it with an acid of known concentration.
“At the beginning of the test, a few drops of pH indicator would turn the solution in the flask pink to show it’s alkaline. But as you slowly pour the acidic solution into the flask, [neutralisation occurs], and the pink solution would become colourless,” she recalled. “It was so cool to see a coloured solution gradually become transparent!”
While practical science lessons are usually fun and exciting, there are a million ways that an experiment could go wrong, and students were tested in Paper Six of Coordinated Sciences, one of the three extended-syllabus exams Andrea took. However, without all the experimental apparatus in front of her in the written test, identifying experimental errors became trickier.
Doing past papers and looking at marking schemes helped a lot to familiarise herself with the most common experimental mistakes, and do well in the exam, she said.
A fan of American TV series Bones and The Flash, Andrea is considering studying chemistry at a university in the United States, and eventually becoming a forensic scientist. “I think it’s interesting to use scientific methods and gather evidence [for criminal investigation].”