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U.S. University Students Take Part in Global Battle of the Brains in Shanghai


Seventy-eight teams of 3 students each from universities across the globe are going head to head in the International Collegiate Computer Programming World Finals. For 5 intense hours on April 6, in Shanghai, these technology wizards will try to solve as many complex real-world problems as they can - like calculating an optimal investment strategy or determining the maximum load of a bridge. But winning the $10,000 first prize is not the only goal at this contest.

"I'm looking forward to it. I guess it's a little more serious than fun," says Chris, a computer science major at Georgia Tech, one of 19 U.S. schools to qualify for this competition. His teammate, Charles, sees it as a chance to objectively evaluate his programming skills. "I'd like to know where I stand because I have absolutely no idea right now," he says. "Competing in the Regional, from what I gather, is nothing like the World Finals as far as difficulty goes."

Their coach, David Van Brackle, says the final competition is a real challenge in problem solving. "It's 5 hours, 8 to 10 problems, one computer terminal and three students," he says. "You solve as many problems as you can."

To prepare his team, Coach Brackle had them practice solving problems from earlier contests. Now that it's time for the real thing, he wants them to stay cool. The most important thing, he says, is to maintain focus. "There are so many things at the World Finals that can be a distraction," he says. "I mean the World Finals itself… the atmosphere… being in Shanghai, China. So I just want them to focus on the task at hand, to understand that this is no different than the practices and to apply what they know how to do."

Of course, the other 77 teams have practiced just as hard. Gabby Silberman, a spokesman for IBM, the contest sponsor, expects the competition to be fierce. The team that won last year, a university from St. Petersburg, Russia, is returning to defend their title. In addition, 8 other schools from Russia will participate in the finals. Mr. Silberman says teams are coming from around the world: " (We have) teams from Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and elsewhere from Latin America," he says. "(We have) teams from Asia, including teams from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Japan and there are several teams from China. We have teams from Singapore this year. It's quite a wide representation."

Along with testing their knowledge and creativity, Mr. Silberman says attending the World Finals gives these students a chance to interact with people who share their interests… and foster international cooperation. "I've been to several World Finals and [you can see that happening] quite graphically," he says. "Teams have T-shirts with their school colors, and the day they get there, you see these islands of colors. They are all isolated. By the third day, except when they are in competition, you'll see them all intermix. It's a palette of colors all around the hotel and the venue."

Mr. Silberman says IBM got involved with this competition in 1997 because company officials recognized that a shortage of talent could be a serious obstacle to continued innovation. Challenging university students at programming contests like this, he says, will help the next generation of computing professionals hone the skills they'll need to succeed in the market place, and to continue making progress in information technology.