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Brainy University Students Battle in Computer Science, Engineering Competition

The Battle of the Brains is the largest computer contest of its kind in the world. Every year, thousands of teams representing universities from across the globe gather to solve real-world computer programming problems.

The competition - held this year in Stockholm, Sweden - is an opportunity for young talents to become master thinkers who can make a difference in people's lives today and help solve the problems our world will face tomorrow.

Jacob Steinhardt, 19, is a freshman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was part of the three-member team that represented MIT at the Battle of the Brains.

"Our team placed first in North America, and we got seventh overall, which was a silver medal," he says. "The first-place medal was St. Petersburg Institute of Technology [from Russia]."

Competing against other strong teams, Steinhardt says, was tough and challenging.

"Some of the other top teams… there was Tsinghua University from China," he says. "There was also another team from St. Petersburg and a team from Oxford University. One of our biggest competitors in the North American continent was from Canada, Waterloo University."

A race to solve real-world problems

Each team has to solve 11 programming conundrums in five hours.

"I think the hardest part is the last 30 or 40 minutes when maybe you have two or three problems left that you're working on, and you know you're not going to have time to solve all of them and you have to decide which one you're going to keep working on."

Doug Heintzman is Battle of the Brains spokesman.

"Some of the world's best computer scientists and engineers formulate the questions and submit them to a panel," he says. "And the panel decides which questions will be at the competition."

He says the problems are all presented in real-life scenarios.

"We might ask students to imagine that they were designing a port of entry and that there were container ships that had certain different capacities, that were arriving on a certain schedule," he says. "And they had to optimize the transfer of containers from the ships to trains that were going to take them off. Or to design the interior of an airport to facilitate the transfer of passengers from incoming flights to outgoing flights."

Future Nobel Prize winners?

About 22,000 students from almost 2,000 universities in 88 countries competed in the regionals stage of the competition in October. One hundred teams went on to the finals that were held in April in Stockholm. Heintzman says the location is significant.

"It's exciting, because the closing ceremonies this year were in the Golden Room at the City Hall in Stockholm, Sweden, where they give out the Nobel Prizes every single year," he says. "As I look out at the amazing audience of bright young students, I can't help but wonder that in 30 or 40 years, who knows, some of these students may be back in this room receiving a whole other kind of prize."

Competition attracts talent from around the globe

When the Battle of the Brains started in the 1970s, it was strictly a North American technology competition. IBM became the sponsor in 1997, and since then, Heintzman says, the contest has grown tremendously.

"First of all, is how broad and worldwide the competition is," he explains. "Second of all, the kind of skills these young people have and their sophistication, the kinds of tools that are available for them have changed dramatically. So it's just fascinating to watch the evolution of this competition over these past number of years."

A world in need of problem-solving skills

Heintzman says the competition gives information technology students from different schools a chance to get to know each other and win scholarships and other awards. It also allows them to meet with industry representatives, who are constantly on the lookout for the best and brightest students to recruit into their workforce.

"But the other side of the equation is that the world faces some really daunting challenges," he says, "problems of pandemic diseases, global climate change, finite energy resources, population density and congestion and urban development planning. And it's going to take some very bright, creative and innovative problem-solvers to tackle these problems. So we think it's very important for industry and academia to work in partnership to promote excellence in problem solving."

With this goal in mind, Doug Heintzman expects that the Battle of The Brains will continue to grow, giving bright young minds a chance to flourish and presenting to the world the next generation of its most creative problem solvers.