March 4, 2009

C.S. Students to Show Off Skills

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In April, a select team of computer science students will travel to Stockholm, Sweden to represent Cornell in the 33rd annual Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest Finals, sponsored by IBM.
The ACM-ICPC, more commonly known as the “Battle of the Brains,” is a global competition between 7,109 teams that “challenges students to solve real-world problems using open technology and advanced computing methods under a grueling, five-hour deadline,” according to the contest’s website. Of those 7,109 teams, only 100 qualify for the final competition in Stockholm.
Accompanied by coach Dustin Tseng grad, the team of engineering students Vincent Chan ’09, Eric First ’09 and Haden Lee ’10 finished second in the regional competition in Armonk, N.Y. last September, assuring them of a spot in the finals.
“Only about 10 teams from the U.S. go each year,” Lee said. “It is the largest collegiate programming competition in the world.”
Lee and Tseng have participated in the “Battle of the Brains” previously and this experience may serve the team well. Cornell students have participated in the “Battle of the Brains” world finals six times in the last decade. Last year, Cornell placed 47th in the world.
To prepare for the competition, Chan, First and Lee meet with Tseng once a week to do problem sets from previous competitions. During these sessions, the team tackles problem sets similar to those in the competition and practices developing creative solutions to problems.
“A lot of the problems are exercises in designing efficient or creative algorithms. Often times, most problems can be solved using brute force, but sometimes, the problems have too many solutions to be solved using trial and error. A lot of real world problems are similar in that the challenge is not figuring out how to solve the problems, but how to solve the problems efficiently,” First said.
The problem set that participants are presented with is designed to reflect real-world issues, and the contest itself aims to attract bright and creative thinkers to tackle these dynamic problems.
“We might ask students to imagine that they were responsible for coordinating the efficient transfer of materials from incoming cargo ships to some trains. They are given input sets and [are] expected to find some plausible way to move things around,” said Doug Heintzman, IBM’s director for business strategy and sponsorship executive for the ACM-ICPC.
“We are confronted with very profound challenges in infrastructure, ecology, the environment and energy, and these problems require increasingly clever solutions. Under the covers of optimizing traffic flows or of building smart electric grids are fundamental engineering, mathematics and physics issues. We are in need of creative and bright problem solvers to help us tackle these issues,” Heintzman said.
As suggested by the name of the contest itself, top “brains” trained in engineering, mathematics, physics and computer science convene from around the globe to vie for the first place. As teams representing an increasing number of countries are beginning to participate, the finals are becoming more competitive. In recent years, teams from Eastern Europe and Asia have dominated the medal podium. For many of these teams, participation in the “Battle of the Brains” is a source of national pride, according to Heintzman.
“These are like the Olympics. When the Chinese team won a little while back, the government gave their coach a brand new car. When the Russian team won a couple years ago, President Putin held a reception for them at the ‘Russian White House,’” Heintzman said.
Despite tough competition, the team remains optimistic.
“It’s really hard to win this kind of competition, so as long as I solve as many of the problems [as] I can, I’ll be satisfied,” Lee said. “And the competition is only five hours long, so we get to be in Sweden for four days.”