Sunday, October 29, 2006

Student Programmers Score High in ACM Contest

Chestertown, MD, October 28, 2006 — Teams from Washington College participated in the Mid-Atlantic regional playoffs of an international programming contest run by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) October 28. One of the teams, the WC Wildcats, placed 17th out of 135 teams, higher than opponents from Johns Hopkins and UMBC, and just below a team from Maryland at College Park. A second team, the WC Wolves, placed 100th overall.

The Wildcats were also awarded a plaque for being the top team at the local site—after placing above Delaware, Drexel, Rowan, and Temple.

These results are the strongest showing of any Washington College programming team since they started competing in 1998. Professor Shaun Ramsey of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science coached the teams. The Wildcats consisted of sophomores Samuel Evans and Ben Kozlowski, and senior Lucas Gerber. The Wolves, playing with one member absent, consisted of senior Jeremy Alexander and freshman Timothy Gelner.

The contest, sponsored by the IBM Corporation and Google, is a five-hour marathon where teams of three persons are given a single computer and a set of 8 problems to solve. Solutions are submitted electronically and judged at a location in Virginia. Scoring is done by awarding points for the number of minutes taken until a correct solution is submitted. If a submitted solution is incorrect, the team is sent a cryptic message on the lines of "wrong output," and may resubmit with further penalties. At the end of the contest the team with the lowest total points and highest number of solved problems wins. The prize for solving a problem is a much-coveted, helium-filled, colored balloon. A sense of the difficulty of the problem-set is obtained by the sobering fact that only one team in the mid-Atlantic solved 5 problems, and thirty-six solved none. Washington College solved two, and that was good enough to be the leader among the ten teams at this site.

Washington College was one of nine sites that hosted the contest. Running a site is a carefully choreographed operation. The site-directors were Louise Amick and Austin Lobo who were assisted by Michael McLendon and Jennifer Whitehead. The contest was held in the Goldstein 100 classroom with top-of-the-line IBM laptop computers. Keeping the networks functioning, monitoring the flow of data, were engineers Cal Coursey and David DeMarsi. The laptops were connected to a central computing server named Albert, after a respected former professor, which in turn linked up with the contest server in Virginia. Responsible for all the underlying software was the Systems Administrator, Ted Knab. Hardware and software rested on the computing infrastructure set up by CIO Billie Dodge. Under site-judge Martin Suydam, the contest started at noon and ran smoothly to completion.

The success of the teams and the site stems from a long-term commitment to computing science and technology by the College's administration. Washington College has offered a minor in computer science for nearly four decades. The computer science major was established in 2000 within the Department of Mathematics, with two graduates emerging in 2001. The first person to receive the degree was a woman.

Computer Science at Washington College stays true to the sprit of a liberal education. Students are put through a rigorous curriculum balanced between theory and practice that prepares them for careers and graduate school. Many take second majors in areas like mathematics, art, philosophy, and biology.

Computer programming is taught under the Windows and Linux operating systems and the students learn industry-standard programming techniques in the C++ and Java languages. Beyond the core courses, the students study the theory of computation and algorithm design, databases and networks, and round off their training with a capstone course in software engineering that emphasizes teamwork and the management of large programming projects.

Students have learning opportunities outside the class, such as in the Computing Club. They also do internships, independent study, and guided research projects. In the summer of 2006, Kozlowski worked on a challenging problem in computer graphics under Ramsey, and Evans implemented a major component of a code-breaking algorithm under Lobo. Three past leaders of the programming teams have become PhD candidates, with one already finished and the other two in progress. A fourth went on to do biomedical engineering and now designs prostheses.

Four team members will return next year, supplemented by promising first-year students. A proposal is in the works to host an NSF sponsored conference in computer science, and next year there will be a new computer server nicknamed Sampson for its power and in honor of a former president of the college.

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