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April 17, 2009

Computer science world finals send University team to compete in Stockholm

The 2009 world finals in computer programming is considered the most prestigious of its kind. Known as the Battle of the Brains, the finals play host to roughly 300 undergraduate students of advanced programming capabilities.

This year, the U of C’s team is going. “Works in Theory” and its coach travel to Stockholm, Sweden, on Friday to participate in the competition sponsored by IBM. After placing third in the Mid-central regional competitions, the team qualified for the final rounds.

“We’re up against very tough competition,” said Borja Sotomayor, a graduate student in the University’s computer science department and one of the team’s coaches. Other students from around the world are known to throw themselves into preparation for the event, going through hundreds of practice problems—one of which can take several hours—in the hopes of placing in the top 10.

The U of C’s team, comprised of first-year Louis Wasserman, second-year Ian Andrews, and third-year Lauren Ellsworth, is in it “just for fun,” according to Sotomayor. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from practicing weekly to better their chances of success.

The Battle of the Brains has “got to be one of the most demanding intellectual challenges there is,” said Alan Ganek, an executive at IBM. Merely qualifying, he said, is a huge accomplishment for any team. “This means they are tremendously talented people.”

Of the 7,000 teams that compete in regional qualifiers, only 100 of them make it to the final rounds.

There they are given eight to 10 problems and five hours with a single computer to devise and write the programs. The programs are then submitted electronically to a judging panel. If a program is deemed correct, the team is awarded a balloon to signify their position to other teams, and their scores are marked on a public scoreboard. If not, 20 minutes is taken off the team’s clock, making sure teams are confident in their answers before submitting.

Towards the last half hour of the competition, balloons are no longer awarded, and the scoreboard isn’t updated, giving a “little bit of last minute thrill” to the competition, Sotomayor said.

Once the clocks are stopped and the last program sent in, the judges award points based on both the number of problems solved and the time it took for each team to solve them. The shorter the time, the more points awarded.

As for the problems themselves, they range from “tough to extremely difficult,” Ganek said.

“You have to think in very abstract terms,” Sotomayor said. A single team, made up of three students, must include programmers, he said, but it should also have good puzzle-solvers and generally people of different abilities.

Despite a heavy dose of enthusiasm within the team, a trip across the Atlantic during the quarter might prove stressful.

“It’s really hard to leave in the middle of fourth week,” said Ellsworth. The team leaves Friday and won’t come back until the following Thursday, forcing her to miss a couple of midterms in addition to the regular load of homework that would otherwise be due. But, she said, a chance to explore Stockholm does a lot to make up for it.

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