Allen Liu and his teammate weren't even sure they were going to make it past the first round of the prestigious national competition that they entered earlier this year.
In fact, Allen said, the pair screamed every time they received the results that they had progressed — to the regional competition, and now to the national finals.
That disbelief might be attributed more to the McCallie School senior's character than to the ambition of his project, which merges artificial intelligence and computer machine learning. His former chemistry teacher, Nancy Olenchek, described Allen as "one of the most humble people you will ever know."
Today, Allen and his teammate, Gabrielle Liu of Nashville, who is not related to Allen, will travel to Washington, D.C., to compete as one of just 12 finalists in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology.
The Siemens Competition has existed since 1999 and works to connect students interested in STEM and help give them access to higher education.
As finalists, the pair will receive at least $25,000 in scholarship money. In total, only six teams will compete against each other in the team category — the other six finalists are in the individuals category.
The pair recently won the regional competition at Georgia Tech with the project, "Neural Networks without Multiplications," for which they developed a new mathematical concept for artificial intelligence systems. The systems are most commonly used in technologies like facial recognition and autonomous cars.
"Artificial intelligence is a really rapidly evolving field, and gives us the power to train computers to think on their own," Allen said.
Allen has competed in math competitions since his freshman year of high school. He credits his passion for math to his father.
"I'll have to admit, it hasn't always been entirely self-driven," he said. "My father would always encourage me. Since I was 2 or 3 years old, we would do math problems at home and since I did get exposed [to math] ... it eventually transformed into a passion."
Allen's passion and talent has led him to placing in the Top 150 in the United States National Chemistry Olympiad and helping to start a middle school math competition team at McCallie.
"Allen is a one-in-a-million kind of student," Olenchek, said. "He's a very big thinker, and accomplished in more than just academics."
He is also a classically trained violinist, has performed at Carnegie Hall with the National Youth Orchestra, and is active in the school's senior leadership group.
Allen developed a project called Tornado Tank, modeled after the television show Shark Tank, that called for other students to submit ideas for how to improve the school's campus, according to Jim Tanner, McCallie's deputy director of marketing and communications.
In November, Allen and Gabrielle were among 101 students selected to compete at Georgia Tech, out of a pool of more than 1,860 projects submitted.
Olenchek cannot remember a time in "recent history" that a local student advanced to the national competition. In 2016, five students from Tennessee advanced to the regional finals — three from Nashville and two from Oak Ridge.
"It's amazing to see the knowledge and determination students bring to the competition each year," David Etzwiler, CEO of the Siemens Foundation, said in a news release. "These high school students are presenting top-notch, graduate level- research and they deserve recognition for their efforts."
Along with the scholarship money received this year by each finalist, the top prizes for winners include $500,000 in scholarships, including two top prizes of $100,000.
Allen, who is waiting to hear about his early application for admittance to Princeton University after he graduates next year, said the scholarship will be an "immense help."
Though he isn't sure how technology will change or what his career will look like in 10 or 20 years, Allen knows what direction he wants to go in.
"I want to do something that bridges my analytical math skills and social good," he said.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.