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Computer Geniuses Compete for World's Smartest Trophy

The world's most talented and creative information technology students met in Canada this month (April 6-9), to solve computer-programming challenges in an international competition. The big winner of the Battle of the Brains is society, as these young scientists prepare for careers in solving some of the world's most pressing problems. VOA's Faith Lapidus has more on the event in this report by Faiza Elmasry.

The top college athletes compete in televised intercollegiate championship games. The top college scholars compete in The Battle of the Brains.

"The competition started 32 years ago, when a group of academics thought it would be a really good idea to shine a light on excellence in the emerging field of information technology and computer programming," says Doug Heintzman of IBM, which has sponsored the Battle of the Brains since 1997. He says at the beginning, the contest was mainly a forum for IT students from the United States and Canada. Today, it's global, with thousands of teams from every continent entered at the regional level.

"In early September [for the Regional Competition], we have over 6,700 different schools that are representing about 20,000 students, 83 countries in six continents," he says. "That group gets reduced over time and becomes 100 teams that are then invited to the World's Championship finals."

Among those 100 finalists, the United States had 20 teams, China had 15, the Russian Federation had 11 and Canada had 6.

Each team of three students had five hours to solve 11 computer-programming tasks. They were all based on real-world business situations. In this year's competition, students had to to develop software code to determine the length of a city skyline, map the size and capacity of a new building design, and provide support for a network for cell phones.

First place – and the prizes and scholarships that go with it – went to a Russian team, from St. Petersburg University of IT, Mechanics and Optics.

"Russian teams have always been very strong in mathematics and subsequently in information technology and computing programming," Heintzman says. "They train really, really hard. They work really, really hard. Many of the judges for some of the Russian teams are in fact past world champions. I think we have to take our hats off to the effort they have put in it. They're very bright people who work very hard at it."

The 2008 challenges were harder than those in previous years, according to Andrew Lutomirski, a graduate physics student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He's competed in several Battles, and this year, his team captured second place.

Trying to solve as many problems as possible in just five hours, Lutomirski says, is challenging but fun.

"It's a lot of fun to go to the competition," he says. "It's a lot of fun to do really well. It's a chance to learn how to do a certain kind of programming very quickly. It's having fun and meeting other contestants and coaches. Every night, there is what they call the cyber café where they have computers online and demonstrations and various games to play with everyone."

Students also got outside on excursions, Lutomirski says, one to the Columbia Ice Fields and one to Lake Louise.

That interaction among students has always been one of the gathering's goals – fostering collaboration skills within the next generation of IT industry leaders. And Heintzman says the young scientists also have a valuable opportunity to meet with industry representatives.

"We bring in a bunch of IBM researchers from around the world," he says. "So students get an opportunity to work with these scientists and talk to them and look at some of the emerging technology that's coming out of the laboratories."

The young competitors usually receive offers to work with the leading companies in the field. But in the long run, Heintzman says, the big winner is society.

"It's quite obviously true that our society faces some really challenging problems: global warming, energy [crises], and pandemics," he says. "Our ability to innovate and bring interesting solutions to the marketplace rests on the shoulders of bright, creative people."

Doug Heintzman hopes the challenges and rewards of the Battle of the Brains will get some of the best and brightest excited about pursuing the technology careers that can help shape a better future for our world.