Get with the programming

Students place 15 in national computer science competition

Kitchen measurements, costume changes at a dance recital, and rearranging mosaic pieces. They sound like non-related items on a grade school teacher’s to-do list, but they are actually intricate programming problems designed for a battle of intellect.

On Nov. 7, a programming team from Olivet performed engaged in a battle of intellect at the International Colligate Programming Contest (ICPC). In keeping with tradition, Olivet sent a team of three programmers: senior engineering major Aaron Hartke, junior computer programming major Joe Melsha, and senior computer science major Zach Rivett. Despite the fact that the programming Tigers rivaled larger schools, such as Northwestern and U of I, the trio placed 15 of 155 teams overall.

The trio was assigned to the University of Chicago, one location of eight, all participating simultaneously. Their site hosted the most competitive pool of programmers, with 10 of the 35 teams placing in the top 10 percent regionally. With several of the big league schools submitting five or six teams, the Tigers became underdogs. The trio didn’t go into the competition with intentional preparation under their belts. While many participants were intent on trying to cram in any last-minute information that might be relevant, Melsha “went and got a soda.”
All three gentlemen named previous studies and course-work sufficient for competing at ICPC. Computer Science professor Cathy Bareiss added that a number of contestants from major universities take special courses, designed specifically to prepare them for ICPC.

The contest was nine questions to be solved within 5 hours. The ONU Tigers ended up correctly answering six. No team executed all nine, according to the ICPC website. Every time a team answered a question correctly a balloon was tied to their desk. That way, Rivett explained, you could look around the room and see how far each team had gotten in answering the questions.

The problems were all the algorithms necessary to decipher the solution. The team would then translate their findings to the judges via a stream of precise code.


“There’s a lot of ‘fluff’ in the problems they give you,” explained Dr. Bareiss. “Your first step is to find out how to eliminate all that ‘fluff’ information. Then you can start to work on solving the actual question.”

The point of the entire competition is to make connections within the information, quickly. The trio came in with a “divide and conquer” strategy. Hartke began working through the final questions while Rivett started at the beginning. Melsha aided in answering the problems, but also took charge of programming all of the teams’ answers.

“The coding part was easy because we had Joe,” Hartke said. He explained that working through the math and finding an appropriate algorithm was more difficult.

Melsha has eight years of experience working in the programming world already. He expressed that there is great weight behind the questions asked through ICPC and other programming competitions. Melsha stressed that if computer scientists fail to continue leading and advancing algorithms, the world would be missing out on some of this generation’s biggest achievements.

Mariah Garratt

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