That's Genius!Jul 02, 2018 ● By Lisa Ferguson
GENIUS JUNIOR — “Little Big Thinkers” Episode 106 — Pictured: (l-r) Team Wicked Smaht: Nolan, Eashani, Jack — (Photo by: Evans Vestal Ward/NBC)
The tween and his family moved from Bloomington, Ill., to North Texas in 2017 and settled in Frisco earlier this year, just prior to his appearance in April on the first season of the NBC series “Genius Junior.” During the episode, titled “Little Big Thinkers,” Vivek and his two young teammates competed against another trio of brilliant preteens in a battle of wits that tested their ability to spell lengthy words aloud and backwards and solve complex math problems in their heads, among other mind-bending tasks. For a challenge called “Human GPS,” they studied a map and later recalled, from memory, the names and locations of galleries at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Vivek’s team advanced to the show’s semi-final round before being eliminated.
“It was really fun,” he says of appearing on the game show that was filmed in Los Angeles. “I was nervous, obviously, knowing millions of people are going to be watching you.” He especially enjoyed answering queries posed by host Neil Patrick Harris (who starred decades ago as a young brainiac on the television dramedy “Doogie Howser, M.D.”). Vivek, who, in 2016, competed on the similarly-titled Lifetime network game show “Child Genius,” described his most recent on-camera experience as “scary, but also exhilarating.”
According to his mother, Anupama Chandrappa, Vivek first exhibited signs of mental superiority as an infant. At 8 months old, he showed an interest in solving puzzles. “He was not even able to grab the pieces, but he knew where to put them. It was very cute,” she recalls. By age 2, he was reading and doing math in his head. However, it was not until she and her husband, Antony Abraham, were contacted several years later by the child’s first-grade teacher that the couple learned he was a gifted student.
At age 7, Vivek took an IQ test and “maxed out” with a score of 160 points (the average person scores between 85 and 115 points). Two years later, as a 9-year-old, he earned a perfect score of 36 on the ACT test -- a feat achieved by only about 1,000 of the more than two million high school students who take the standardized exam annually.
As a result of his remarkable ACT score, Vivek (his name in the ancient language of Sanskrit means “wisdom”) received a scholarship to study astrophysics and chemistry online at Northwestern University. “It gives me a surge of happiness … whenever I study and I learn a new thing. It feels really nice,” he shares. He usually tackled the coursework only after completing his daily homework from Trent Middle School, where, in May, he completed eighth grade. Despite having been enrolled in the highest level academic classes available there, including in his favorite subjects of Algebra II and Science, Vivek says he was rarely challenged by the curriculum.
Although he is capable of attending a college or university full time, for now, his parents have decided against allowing him to pursue higher education. Ms. Chandrappa, who also has a 3-year-old daughter, explains, “For us, it is very important that Vivek has a social life. We want him to experience his childhood and experience high school because we believe that missing that is missing out on something really important in life. Also, we are a small family. If he goes away to college, I am going to miss him.”
Parenting a child genius child is not easy. “To be honest, it is a little stressful for me and my husband,” she says. Although both have worked in the computer field for State Farm Insurance® (she was previously a project manager and he is currently an information security manager), she says, “We are not geniuses. I feel very stressed about whether we are doing the right things for Vivek.” It helped that, at age 10, Vivek was accepted into the prestigious Davidson Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides programs and support services for profoundly gifted children and teens.
Since 2016, Vivek has also collaborated with the adult students, faculty members and outside experts who comprise The Mind Project’s Knight Rover Robotics Initiative team at Illinois State University (ISU). The group designs and programs small robots that utilize “bottom-up” behavior-based artificial intelligence. “They basically reached out to me and were like, ‘Hey, do you want to join this project?’” the youngster recalls. “Obviously, I was supper happy and said ‘yes.’” Since becoming part of the project, Vivek has programmed a robot to learn from mistakes it makes while navigating a maze.
Dr. David Anderson, an ISU philosophy professor and director of The Mind Project, called Vivek “a valuable member of the team. He has programming skills that allowed him to make significant contributions to our robot designs.” Meanwhile John Kuk, an alumnus of the university and technology consultant who mentors the robotics team, said the tween has “a good sense of focus. He talks about a lot of advanced topics. I have conversations with him and think, ‘I do not even have these kinds of conversations with grown adults in business.’”
Vivek, who will turn 13 in August and enter Memorial High School as a freshman, spends most Saturdays “skyping” with underprivileged children at a school in India. He teaches the youngsters how to build and program robots with the help of LEGO® Mindstorms® kits he sends to them. A trip to that nation to deliver additional kits is being planned. “They have not seen this stuff before,” he says of his students. “It is actually pretty fun being a teacher, and it is really not that hard.”
An aspiring astrophysicist, he hopes to attend Stanford University and eventually make great scientific contributions similar to those of his hero, the late physicist and author Stephen Hawking. Vivek wants to focus his life’s work on wormholes, which he describes as “a theoretical astronomical concept that involves the warping of the space-time continuum that enables intergalactic travel faster than the speed of light.” Imagining a futuristic day, he explains, “You could wake up on Earth, then go to any extremely distant planet to work and then come back to Earth to sleep again. That is amazing.”
Ms. Chandrappa says she and her husband are very proud of their son. “He is a humble kid. If you ask him to boast, he will never do such a thing. He is very grounded.” In fact, Vivek himself says, “I am basically a normal kid. There is not too much that is different about me.”
Stacey Toma agrees. A language-arts teacher with Trent Middle School’s Gifted and Talented program, she says that if one is not aware of Vivek’s abilities you would not necessarily know he is this child genius. “It is not like he goes around flaunting it. Unless you have a conversation with him about these topics, you would not know. He is a kid just like all of the rest of them,” she shares.