January 25, 2008
By Kirk Sibbald
Christopher Dutchyn, assistant professor of Computer Science and mentor to the U of S computer programming team.
Photo by Kirk Sibbald
A trio of computer programmers has qualified for a prestigious global competition, enhancing their career paths and boosting the University’s profile in the process.
The U of S will be sending the team of undergrads to the annual Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals in Banff from April 6 to 10. The students – Travis Calder and Christoph Dittmann from Computer Science along with Kung Chi Cinnati Loi from Engineering – form the first U of S team to qualify for the world finals since 1996, and it is an accomplishment that will pay many dividends down the road, said Christopher Dutchyn, assistant professor of Computer Science and mentor for the team.
“Teams that finish in the top 10 tend to have students who will get scholarships, that will be first choices for student internships. They often are recruited by companies, the large companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon,” said Dutchyn.
“It is very prestigious to win or do well at the world competition, because it says you have strong students and it will attract strong students to the University.”
A top 10 placing in the finals would be nice, said Dutchyn, but simply qualifying for this event is something to take pride in. More than 300,000 students from 83 countries were involved in the initial quest to reach the finals, with those numbers whittled down through local and regional competitions.
The U of S had three teams qualify for the North American regional competition, which is organized according to time zones. Competing against 49 teams, the most successful U of S team solved seven of the nine problems posed to them, placing them in a tie with teams from the Universities of Calgary and Alberta. Based on this strong performance, all three teams were admitted to the world finals.
The competition, said Dutchyn, tests more than just computer programming expertise. Many questions are more specifically word problems, so students must first think practically, then set about creating a program that will execute the solution.
As an example: A ship is coming into a container port, the containers have to be taken off the ship in a particular order, then mounted onto train cars. What is the most efficient way to complete this task?
Other questions are more straightforward, such as determining the quickest route, based on necessary dice rolls, to complete a game of Snakes and Ladders.
Dutchyn, a former computer science student at the U of A, tried qualifying for the finals during his undergraduate days, but the closest he came was as an alternate. And unfortunately, he said with a laugh, “no one got sick.”
Although he admits it is personally exciting to be making his first trip to the world finals, Dutchyn makes sure to give credit to the students.
“The students have certainly worked hard and the result is clearly theirs. The most I can do is give them guidelines to help them understand the approaches to problems or how to work as a team. In the end, though, they’re the ones doing the work, so they’re really the stars.”
Computer programming team members, from left to right, Travis Calder, Christoph Dittmann and Kung Chi Cinatti Loi.
Photo by Kirk Sibbald