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E-news Online May 2011

U.Va. Sends Computer Science Students to Programming World Finals for Third Straight Year

By Zak Richards

A team of U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science computer science students are heading to the world finals for computer programming. Next week, they will travel to Orlando, Florida, for the IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest. This is the third year in a row that a U.Va. team has qualified for the world finals.

The contest brings together the most talented student computer programmers from 157 of the world’s top universities to compete over a series of real-world inspired computing problems. Examples of past problems include designing a global positioning system program and safely landing planes in an air traffic control simulation. The competition will run from May 27-31.

The U.Va. team — Kristi Collins (CpE ’11), Dan Epstein (CS ’12) and Adelin Miloslavov (CS ’11) — earned its spot in the world finals by beating more than 100 teams this past fall in the Mid-Atlantic regional contest. The team was among more than 8,300 teams worldwide vying for a spot.

In addition to the honor of making it the finals,they are excited to apply classroom lessons in a highly-competitive, real-world setting.

“I learned a ton that I wouldn’t have been exposed to in the classroom,” said Epstein. “This competition bridges the gap between the theoretical material and applying algorithms as you would in your career.”

Other U.S. teams will come from such schools as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University and fellow mid-Atlantic regional winners the University of Maryland and Duke University.

Teams from around the world had originally planned to convene in the resort city of Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt at the end of February. With visas and plane tickets in hand, the U.Va. team watched Egypt’s revolution unfold. On February 1, they learned what they had all anticipated—the competition would be canceled. The team continued to practice until they found out they would be heading to Orlando.

While other school’s have had ACM teams for more than a decade, U.Va. started competing four years ago. In that time, Aaron Bloomfield, associate professor of computer science and faculty advisor for the team, has seen the skill level of the teams and the interest among students grow. This year a pack of 13, three-member U.Va. teams competed for the seven slots in the regional competition.

“Compared to other ACM-schools, we have young program,” said Bloomfield. “Despite this we have a growing record of success in making it to the world finals. I see us only getting better from here.”

Bloomfield also notes the high number of females on U.Va.’s ACM teams compared to teams from other schools. U.Va. has had at least one female on each of its world finals teams. By contrast, in a world final in Stockholm two years ago, only nine out of the 300 competitors were female.

The U.Va. team has been training with the members of U.Va.’s two-time world finalist team.  Brianna Satchell (CS ’11), a member of the former team, is teaching the new team lessons they learned over the past two years. After Stachell got them started, the new team members have developed their own problem solving style. In the past two world finals, U.Va. team members noticed that higher placing teams were using a collaborative approach, as opposed to a “divide-and-conquer” approach in which they worked on problems separately. They are now using a collaborative approach.   

The team is also simulating the competition by coding solutions to old competition problems. Throughout the past semester they have met each Monday morning for five-hour sessions that replicate the format of the upcoming competition.

For the past 40 years, the contest has experienced tremendous growth. It has roots in a programming competition held at Texas A&M University in 1970. In 1989, the contest was headquartered at Baylor University and then expanded internationally. IBM became the sponsor in 1997, and, since then, the competition has grown by 1,000 percent. Now almost 25,000 students from around the world compete. 

Collins and Miloslavov will graduate on May 22. After the summer, Collins will begin work for Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory. Miloslavov and Epstein will both be interning at Microsoft this summer, and in the fall, Miloslavov will attend Harvard for graduate work in computer science.