Olathe & Southwest Joco

Bright young stars: Show on gifted kids has familiar face

Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe (right) is part of Lifetime’s all-new competition series “Child Genius.”
Vanya Shivashankar of Olathe (right) is part of Lifetime’s all-new competition series “Child Genius.” Photo by Emily Shur

“What is 17 times two, minus 25, times five, divided by three?” the moderator asked.

“Fifteen,” Vanya Shivashankar answered, without hesitation.

And the 13-year-old was right.

On the first episode of “Child Genius,” which aired recently, Olathe’s spelling bee champ proved she’s more than just a master of letters.

The outgoing teenager is one of 20 students from across the nation being featured on the new 16-episode Lifetime series, which focuses on gifted children and their families as they prepare for a national intelligence competition. The winner will receive a $100,000 college fund and the title of Child Genius 2014.

In front of a panel of impressive moderators, which includes a former NASA astronaut, and with a breathtaking time crunch, the pint-sized geniuses are quizzed on numerous subjects, ranging from math to literature — and everything in between.

The pressure would be enough to make most kids, and adults, clam up.

But for Vanya, the experience was, well, fun.

“It’s weird that so many people will be watching every week, but I’m not nervous because I enjoy the spotlight,” she said. “The questions were hard, but for me, it was really just about having a good time.”

In Tuesday’s episode, Vanya breezed through complex questions regarding math and geography, becoming a top contender and easily earning a spot in next week’s show.

Although it might seem nerve-wracking, the eighth-grader at California Trail Middle School remained poised and calm among the other contestants, who were clearly rattled with nerves.

For Vanya, showcasing her academic talent on national television is no big deal. She has become a familiar face across the country for her participation in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. She has been a serious contender in the bee for four years, even tying for fifth place in the national competition two years ago.

Plus, intelligence runs in her family.

“Vanya has grown up in front of the camera,” said Kavya Shivashankar, her older sister, who won the 2009 Scripps National Spelling Bee. “She’s such a happy, energetic person, but she’s so mature, which makes her perfect for this kind of show. I’m very proud of her.”

According to producers of the new show, Vanya is the epitome of what it represents.

With hundreds of millions of people in the United States, there are a great number of incredibly gifted children who come from all walks of life, said John Hesling, one of the show’s executive producers.

“Child Genius” is already a popular show in the United Kingdom. It was brought to the United States with the hope that it will gain the same momentum.

“At a time when there is loads of coverage about the failing educational foundation for today’s youth, this show shows that despite what people might say, there is a huge number of bright kids in the next generation,” said Hesling. “Our future is in good hands.”

To find their child geniuses, producers scouted summer programs and academic competitions across the nation. They also held auditions and worked with American Mensa.

“Vanya is already pretty well known for her participation in spelling bees and she’s an extraordinary person,” Hesling said. “We were lucky to have her involved in the show. She was an important part of the process, as all the kids were.”

To ultimately be on the show, the kids were put through a series of interviews and an academic test.

The show was filmed in June and July of last year.

When all the kids were brought together in one room, Hesling and the other producers were touched by the immediate bonding.

“For some of these kids, adults are their friends because they’re taking college courses or they tend to be loners,” Hesling said. “When they met each other, they were delighted to find someone to play chess with or talk about the physics of space travel, for example. There was a real sense of friendship, which was lovely to see.”

The competition, however, was not just about sharpening academic skills and making new friends. It was about learning how to think on their feet and focus under pressure.

Those are skills Vanya knows she’s going to need for the rest of her life. Especially if she pursues her goal of joining the medical field one day.

And she’s not alone in her high ambitions. Nearly all the kids on the show have set high standards for themselves.

“These kids are unfiltered when it comes to their dreams,” Hesling said. “They feel the future is theirs to grab with no barriers, and it’s invigorating to see that kind of enthusiasm.”

For the next several weeks, however, the kids on the show are only focused on one thing: winning.

In next week’s episode, the kids will compete on memorization and the human body. In other episodes, they will answer questions about zoology, astronomy and space, inventions and logic, to name a few.

And yes, there will be spelling.

But will Vanya make it to that round?

“I don’t know,” she said, coyly. “You’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Child Genius” airs at 9 p.m. Tuesdays on Lifetime.