Centre students successful at ACM programming contest
For many people, solving computer programming problems seems like an impossibly daunting task. For six Centre students, however, it’s a challenge readily accepted.
Two teams of Centre students recently competed at the regional level of a programming contest held annually by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) for college and university students across the world. The Centre teams competed at the University of Kentucky, where they were up against students from institutions across Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee and Arkansas.
“The Mid Central region covers five states, and the competition takes place at eight universities scattered over the region,” says Christine Shannon, professor of computer science and mathematics. “Teams at all sites are given the same problems and run precisely at the same time. There were 143 teams in the region and 25 competing at the University of Kentucky site.”
The Centre Gold team, consisting of Ruohan Liu ’12, Cara Monical ’13 and Ian Powell ’13, came in second of the teams competing at UK and sixth in the region. Centre White, comprised of Everett Boyer ’13, Matthew Gidcomb ’13 and Zach Trette ’14, came in eleventh at UK and 63rd in the region. A full list of the results can be found here.
“It was really exciting to do so well,” Monical says. “For the first three hours or so, we were first or second in the region, which was a completely thrilling experience.”
Most of the six students became interested in the programming contest after hearing Shannon and others talk about the experience. Powell recalls being intimidated by the difficulty of the problems on his first day of practice — but also being struck by the spirit of teamwork his fellow students displayed.
“I was sitting next to Cara and Ruohan, both of whom I knew were extremely intelligent and had been successful in the ACM contest in previous years. The first problem assigned was written on the board and I just stared blankly at the computer screen. Ruohan walked me through it, and it was there that my ACM career started,” Powell says. “Cara and Ruohan were always there to help me out when I needed it, even if it involved them going out of their way to do so. I was impressed by their abilities, to say the least, but I was also impressed with how warm and welcoming the team and coaches were.”
When the time for the actual contest approached, each Centre team was prepared for what would be a long and difficult day.
“The contest consisted of around eight problems of varying complexities,” Gidcomb says. “We were provided a computer terminal and given five hours to solve as many of them as we could.”
The programming problems each challenged the teams in different ways.
“They gave us a wide variety of problems — from manipulating words and numbers to complicated math problems,” Trette says. “Two of us on a team looked at the problem while the other person typed.”
Even the smallest mistake in the problem solving process was considered by the contest judges.
“The solutions have to be exactly right,” Shannon says. “Even a misplaced blank line in the output would be rejected.”
Both teams shared the same strategy: get the easiest problems out of the way first — and this tactic worked to their advantage.
“The White Team got two problems done in 30 minutes, but spent the rest of the five hours on the last six problems,” Boyer says.
“I was surprised at how well we did, considering that Everett, Zach and I were all new to the contest,” Gidcomb adds.
Despite doing extremely well at the competition, the Centre students are unwilling to rest on the laurels of their success: they’re already looking forward to making an even better showing at the next contest.
“We spent the drive back to campus discussing our strategy and how to better prepare for next year,” Gidcomb says.
Coming so close to moving on to the world finals in Poland this year, everyone has high expectations for the future.
“We were the closest that Centre has ever been to going to the world finals,” says Monical. “Next year, we are definitely looking to go big or go home.”
The team agrees that the experience itself meant more than any awards they could have won.
“The day was a success before the results even came in,” Powell says. “The competition was an enjoyable experience. The day spent with the teams and coaches is one that I won’t soon forget.”
“It was a fun day,” Trette agrees. “In the end, it didn’t matter so much that we won or lost — just that we enjoyed doing it.”