||Centre students do well in IBM's "Battle of the Brains"
RELEASED: October 29, 2009
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—"Let's build a smarter planet."
This is the catchphrase for IBM's current worldwide initiative, and last weekend, nine Centre College students gave the corporation a hand in its project.
Taking part in IBM's annual "Battle of the Brains," the students competed to solve real-world problems using open technology and advanced computing methods—with only five hours to solve nine exceedingly complicated problems.
Formally known as the annual Association for Computer Machinery International Collegiate Contest, the competition is "a melding of industry and academia for the purpose of fostering excellence in problem solving," says Katharine Frase, vice president of technical and business strategy at IBM. "These students are charged with solving real-world, global issues. It's our responsibility to encourage the students to discover new and innovative ways of solving the most pressing issues our world faces today."
These issues include everything from global climate change, disappearing energy resources, pandemic diseases and the increasing worldwide population density.
Since 1997, when IBM began sponsoring the Battle, the competition has grown to involve several tens of thousands of students and faculty members in computing disciplines at 1,821 universities from 83 countries on six continents.
"Qualifying for the Battle of the Brains is a huge accomplishment," says Alan Ganek, chief technology officer and vice president of strategy for business and technology at IBM Software Group. "These students are tremendously talented and have the ability to solve incredibly difficult problems. They have the ability to make our lives richer and our planet smarter."
Representing Centre at the regional level of play were Cara Monical '13 of Houston; Jessica Szweda '10 of Harwood Heights, Ill.; Nicola Klein '11 of Brentwood, Tenn.; Juan Landaverde '11 of Boston; Thanh Nguyen '12; Qian Xie '11; David Fritz '11 of Mason, Ohio; Conor Mather-Licht '11 of Indianapolis; and Alex Waldrop '10 of Lexington, Ky.
"This year, the University of Kentucky site had 25 teams, eight of which were liberal arts colleges like us," says Dr. Christine Shannon, professor of mathematics and computer science and coach of the Centre teams. "All the rest were large state universities. There were just over 140 teams at the Mid-Central regional level."
During the competition, each three-student team was given nine problems to solve. "Three of them were pretty straight forward," Shannon says, "and everyone at our site solved all of them—although some did it much more quickly than others. There were about a half dozen in the region who were unsuccessful in solving any of the problems. Two of the problems went completely unsolved and another had very few solutions. So there was plenty of challenge."
"Essentially, you're locked away in a room and given a set of nine problems, many of which are very challenging," Fritz says. "The fun and excitement comes from finding solutions to particularly tricky problems."
It was the "huge challenge we were faced with" that Landaverde enjoyed most. "It's a situation where teamwork is key. My partners and I were first-timers at this competition, and we were excited about it. Being part of it was just great!"
Waldrop says that the most exciting aspect of the event was "the last hour of the competition. Once teams realized that four hours had passed, the collective pulse of the room started beating faster and faster until the last second of the competition. By the end of the five hours, half the teams had either given up or were working frantically to submit another solution."
Finishing third among the 25 teams was the Centre team comprised of Szweda, Klein and Monical; the others finished eighth and fourteenth.
"The way the contest is scored means that getting just one more solution can make a big difference in the final placement," Shannon explains. "Teams can be very close to a solution when the time is up, and of course there is no credit for having it 'almost right.' Thus, I never want to put too much importance in how well we do in this contest.
"However," she continues, "having all our teams place in the top 60 percent, in addition to having one place third and another place eighth, is an indication that our students are very talented and capable."
Klein says her team was able to perform so successful because the team worked well together.
"We went in with a plan and predetermined jobs," she says. "Cara was our typist and took the lead on the easy problems. Jessica and I worked on the medium problems, so that when Cara was finished, we could help her program the medium ones. It's rewarding when you have to take a chance on a program working, as in this competition where we didn't know what all the input would be. And at the end, it was nice knowing that the only all-female team had outperformed most of the all-male or mixed teams."
Szweda agrees. "It was exciting to be the only all-female team. That was a motivating factor, because women are a minority in the field, so we wanted to represent female computer scientists well."
And although five intense hours of absolute concentration would discourage many students from participating in such a contest, the Centre students found the event to be not only demanding but rewarding.
"Several of the students mentioned how much they enjoyed the competition," Shannon says. "Even though solving problems and programming their solutions for five hours straight can be rather frustrating, it's also invigorating. We have some very strong students, and they certainly represented us well."
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
For news archives go to http://www.centre.edu/web/news/newsarchive.html.
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