On Saturday, Nov. 6, nine Centre College students spent a day competing for the “World’s Smartest Trophy,” given to the winner of the 35th Annual Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, sponsored by IBM.
The competitors know the competition by another name: the Battle of the Brains.
Centre students Cara Monical ’13, Qian Xie ’11 and Nicola Klein ’11 placed third (of 22) in the regional competition. Thanh Nguyen ’12, Ruohan Liu ’12 and Chris Robinson ’12 made up the Centre group placing sixth; the group including Conor Mather-Licht ’11, Juan Landaverde ’11 and Ryan Curry ’11 placed 11th overall.
The regional competitions attracted tens of thousands of students from universities in nearly 90 countries on six continents.
During the event, teams of three students worked furiously to “push their brains to the limits, applying their programming skills and maintaining their mental endurance to solve complex, real world problems under a grueling five-hour deadline,” says Christine Guerrini from the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest. “Tackling these problems is equivalent to completing a semester’s worth of computer programming in one afternoon!”
Along with Centre, Berea College, Georgetown College, Indiana University Southeast, Marshall University, Morehead State University, Northern Kentucky University, Transylvania University, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville sent teams to the regional competition.
“The Battle of Brains is the Olympics of the computer programming world,” says Dr. Michael Karasick, vice president of strategy and technology at IBM Software Group. “These students push their minds to the limit, manipulating technologies such as analytics, system optimization and collaboration to effectively solve a semester’s worth of computer programming in just five hours. The amount of talent that we have the opportunity to witness each year is truly impressive and a testament to the value of this competition.”
To prepare for the intense contest, the Centre students met for an hour and half each week to attempt solutions to problems that appeared on past exams. Christine Shannon, Margaret V. Haggin Professor of Computer Science and Mathematics at Centre, and Marian Anton, visiting assistant professor of mathematics at Centre, were on hand to help with the problems.
“A few of the students are actually doing the work for one hour credit, and they’re required to submit programs which implement the solutions as they get them,” Shannon says. “Often, students would present their solutions so the others could learn their techniques or get ideas. The contest itself lasts for five hours, and there are generally six to nine problems. Invariably, the last few hours are spent on the hardest problems, and anyone who solves one moves up quickly in the rankings. Consequently, we decided to spend most of our practice times on the hard problems on the old exams.”
Monical, whose team solved six of the nine problems at the regional event, says that in addition to these study sessions, her courses at Centre helped prepare her for the competition.
“Besides the Centre classes that teach the specific computer science and mathematics skills necessary to do well on the competition, the most valuable skill Centre taught us is imaginative problem solving,” she says. “While many of the more difficult problems resemble problems that would be simple to solve with standard solutions, they have a twist that makes the standard solution inadequate. Often, the way to solve the problem that seems most obvious will not work for some reason, and you have to be able to think outside the box and find a way around the difficulties. Centre’s classes often encourage this kind of thinking, which is essential to the programming contest.”
More than 140 teams competed in the Mid-Central regional competition, which covered five states. The event was held at the University of Kentucky.
“Our best team came in 15th in the overall competition,” Shannon says. “I’m just so pleased that in spite of having a small program, all three of our teams placed in the top half of the competitors. It speaks well of the talent and hard work of our students.”