November 29, 2001

Computer Science Students Compete

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Cornell’s computer programming team won back bragging rights on Oct. 13 in Long Island.

In a close competition against 43 other teams, Cornell team Big Red JLM won the Greater New York Regional competition for the Association of Computer Science Undergraduates (ACSU) computer programming contest, qualifying them to go to the world championships in Hawaii next March.

The proud members of the team are Jeffrey Hoy ’01, Lars Backstrom ’04, and Michael Conner ’04. Other competing schools included Columbia University, Stevens Institute of Technology and Yeshiva.

“We all expected to win regionals,” said Backstrom.

However, the contest ended up being much more competitive than the team had anticipated. During the competition, each team sat in front of two computers, and had five hours to solve as many of nine problems as possible.

The problems had exciting names such as “Color Me Less,” “Plato’s Blocks,” “Round and Round We Go,” and “To the Max.”

JLM solved seven of the nine problems. In a hair raising finish, Columbia University’s team also solved seven problems. However, it took them more time to arrive at their solutions. This resulted in Cornell’s victory.

Cornell sent two teams to this competition, each consisting of three students. The other team, Big Red BFJ, with members Jacob Hoffman Andrews ’03, Bill Barksdale ’05, and Frances Spalding ’03, came in tenth place after solving four of the problems.

“Personally, for myself,” said Barksdale, “I expected to do a little better.” He said he, “got stuck,” on an electrical circuit problem that he worked on for over an hour until he finally gave up. For the next challenge, the team’s solution worked on their own computer initially, but then failed the test run on the judges’ computer. Nonetheless, Cornell and New York University were the only two schools that had two teams place in the top ten.

Martin Pal grad, David Kempe grad, and Hubie Chen grad trained both Cornell teams for this competition. They selected the competitors from a large group of mostly computer science majors who had competed in a local programming competition. They then invited the top scorers to train with them for a few weeks.

The best performers during training were then selected to compete in the regional competition. Both teams then began training for as many as three hours a day, every day, for the two weeks prior to the competition. Kempe said that he spent the time teaching them more programming, the theory behind programming, and then had them practice with old problems.

“The contest,” Kempe explained, “lets [the students] hone their programming skills, and gives them practice in programming and solving algorithmic questions. Doing well in the contest looks great on a resume.”

Trilogy, an industry-specific e-business software company, is the team’s local sponsor, and also likes to hire successful contestants. IBM is another company that puts a lot of effort into recruiting competitors at the world championships.

The contest is also important because it lets other computer scientists around the world know the level of the work that is going on in the computer science department at Cornell.

However, the team seems unsure of how well they will do at the world championships. Cornell has never won at the international level. Despite the intimidating nature of high-level competition, Kempe remains optimistic.

“This is the most enthusiastic group I’ve ever had,” he said.

Their enthusiasm is evident when they talk about programming.

“I like math and I like to build things,” Hoy said. “Computer programming is sort of in the middle.”

In order to win, however, Big Red JLM will have to perform the almost impossible. They will have to beat the St. Petersburg State University team which has been undefeated for the past two years.

Archived article by Freda Ready