Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Washington College Hosts Battle of the Brains As Computer Programmers Race the Clock

CHESTERTOWN—If you looked into Goldstein Hall on the Washington College campus Saturday, November 6, you witnessed 30 students clustered in threes around computers, typing furiously—when not shooting glances at the clock—with soda cans covering any spare desk space. These students, drawn from six colleges, were competitors in the 35th annual IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, also known as the Battle of the Brains.

Gary Fenstamaker '13, international student Mariam Riyad, and Kenny Higgins '11 finished fourth locally and 42nd overall in the region.

Associate Professor of Mathematics Michael McLendon presents a balloon to the team for answering a problem correctly.

The contest, which Washington College has hosted for the schools in the Mid-Atlantic region for the past nine years, is a five-hour competition during which computer science students are given eight difficult programming problems to tackle. The problems vary from year to year and deal with topics ranging from celestial navigation to geometry. At any given time, two team members design solutions while the other writes the programming. Once they complete a solution, students submit their solutions to a central site. A correct answer earns a balloon, while an incorrect answer earns 20 penalty points. At the end of the competition, the team which has solved the most problems and accumulated the fewest points wins.

Austin Lobo, chair of the Washington College Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, notes that, given the difficulty of the problems, solving at least one guarantees a place in the top 100 schools in the region; solving three or more advances teams to the top 50. It’s an intense and tiring five hours without any breaks, he adds. “We stock up on Mountain Dew and coffee!”
John Massey and William Fielder, members of the Washington College Office of Information Technology, volunteered their time to monitor the network throughout the day to prevent crashes or cheating.

Washington College had two teams coached by Dr. Shaun Ramsey in this year’s Battle of the Brains. Competition to join the teams is not that steep, says associate professor of mathematics, Michael McLendon. “Our students are really doing it for fun and the experience.”

Junior Gary Fenstamaker, senior Kenny Higgins of Easton, and international student Mariam Riyad, a freshman from Egypt, made up one team; they finished fourth locally and 42nd overall in the region. Sophomores Otto Borden and Corey Stokes and senior Dan Jansen made up the second team, which landed 112th overall for the region.

“I personally wasn’t very stressed,” says Borden. “There still are many classes that I haven’t taken which would have been helpful in the contest, so for me this year’s competition was more about getting my feet wet. I still had a lot of fun, and I learned some things that will be helpful for next year.”

For Gary Fenstamaker, the contest was a bit more nerve-racking.

“Most of the time was spent trying to fix our programs and make them right, the other half was spent being hyped up on Mountain Dew, typing faster than we could think,” he says.

Overall, adds Dan Jansen, the experience was rewarding. “It was nice to meet with computer science lovers from different schools and challenge ourselves with these extremely difficult problems,” he says.

Competing with
Washington College students were teams from Drexel University, Goldey-Beacom College in Wilmington, Rowan University in New Jersey, Temple University, and the University of Delaware. At the end of the day, a team from Rowan placed first, followed by a team from Delaware, with Drexel rounding out the top three.

This year’s world finals competition will take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.

-- Grace Arenas '14

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