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International Collegiate Contest Brings Together Elite Programmers of Tomorrow


The war in Iraq has not stopped an international competition from going ahead as planned in California. Students from 26 countries took part in a computer programming contest in Los Angeles (March 22-25).

Contestants came to California from as far as Argentina, Egypt and China.

Bill Poucher, who teaches computer science at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, is executive director of the International Collegiate Programming Contest, which he says draws several hundred finalists.

"We have 68 teams from 26 countries competing," he explains. "There are three [students] per team, so I guess we have got to do a little bit of math to figure out how to do that. I will leave that up to your audience."

That makes 204 competitors, all working on the same problems, too intensely to speak with any reporters.

"We have given them 10 problems, a little bit more work than most college students who are outstanding in computer science could do in a semester, and asked them to do it in five hours," says Mr. Poucher.

Mr. Poucher explains that the students are given real world problems like those they may encounter later in their careers. For example, a city plans a bridge system to connect its downtown buildings. Contestants are given a city grid and asked to determine the most efficient configuration.

And a theater marquee has thousands of lights operated by switches, controlled by a computer. An electrician, however, has installed the wrong kind of switches. Students must write a computer program to correct the problem.

Jan Madey, a professor at Warsaw University in Poland, where he teaches computer science, says that after nine consecutive years among the top 10 finalists, his team placed first this year.

According to Mr. Madey, strategy is the key to winning the contest. "There are three students and one computer. So this is a shared resource," he says. "You have to find a way how you distribute the problems among yourselves." He adds students assign problems to individual team members, decide who will enter the data, and make other strategic choices.

"You learn how to work on a team, which is very important for real life," says Mr. Madey. "You learn how to use informal specifications to understand the problem. You learn how to do it on time, and you learn how to share resources."

The high-tech company IBM sponsors the contest, which the company's Gabby Silberman says is designed to promote excellence in the field of programming. "But also to promote teamwork, to get these people to meet peers from other countries, from other cultures, give them a bit more exposure than what they would get at their universities," he added.

Organizers point out that computer programmers have created a new language and a new way to communicate, over the Internet. High-tech centers have sprung up from Ireland to India. Bill Poucher says these students will develop the high tech systems of the future.

"The important thing is that it is a very competitive group of people who compete to build tools and solve problems in the world. No aggression here. Just good solid competitiveness," he said.

Despite the war in Iraq and some nervousness about travel, none of the teams was deterred from attending. Just two teams failed to take part. Both were from Iran, and contest officials say they could not come because of visa problems.

Two teams from Russia earned second and third place in the contest. Moscow State University placed number two and the St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics took third place. Other top ten teams came from Slovakia, China, Ukraine and Germany. The highest-placed U.S. teams were from the University of California, Berkeley, and the California Institute of Technology, which tied for 13th place.

Pictures courtesy Association of Computing Machinery

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