Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Northwestern students compete against top young technological talent in world

ORANGE CITY-They had five hours to solve 11 programming problems.

They and more than 100 other top minds from around that world, that is.

Northwestern College students Ben Kester of Urbandale, Curt Van Wyk of George and John Calsbeek of Orange City, competed in the IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming World Finals on Tuesday, April 21, in Stockholm, Sweden.

But, getting there wasn't easy.

Kester, a senior computer science and actuarial science major, Van Wyk, a senior mathematics teaching and computer science major, and Calsbeek, a junior computer science major, won a bid to the international computer programming competition after successfully completing all nine problems to finish fourth in the North Central regional contest on Nov. 15 at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

The top 100 finishers from across the globe then were invited to the world finals, which ran April 18-22 in Sweden.

During the competition, each team had five hours to successfully complete up to 11 real-world problems using open technology and advanced computing methods.

The winning team was the one that solved the most problems in the fewest amount of attempts in the least amount of time and was announced last Tuesday. Top honors went to Saint Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics from Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Although the Northwestern trio did not place at the competition, the students came back to Orange City having experienced what was most likely a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Here is a look at the experiences Kester, Van Wyk, Calsbeek and Northwestern computer science instructor Michael Wallinga had while at the ACM-ICPC:

Q: How much time did you spend preparing before you traveled to Sweden?
Calsbeek: About an hour a week for eight weeks.
Kester: Not as much as some of the other schools.
Wallinga: We did find that we were the smallest school there, at least as far as we could tell. We were at least one of the smallest schools there, but the level of preparation definitely varied, and you could see that the schools that performed very well definitely took the competition quite seriously.
Van Wyk: One of the professors we talked to said they had three practice sessions a week.

Q: What were your feelings going into the competition?
Calsbeek: Bring it on.
Kester: We were excited.

Q: What was going through your mind while you were attempting to solve the problems?
Kester: When I first started reading the questions, I thought that it wasn't going to be too bad, but by the end, we weren't getting any and were continually getting rejected on our attempts. I was just hoping we could solve one problem.

Q: Do you know what you were doing wrong?
Calsbeek: We think we know, but we can't confirm anything. They don't give out the final answers.

Q: What was your strategy?
Kester: We had maybe three or four problems that we were all trying to solve around the same time.
Van Wyk: Then we brought those together.

Q: Talking with some of the other teams, did you learn any other strategies that might work better?
Kester: I think the strategy was fine. It was just that we couldn't do the problems.
Van Wyk: I think we were just caught up on a few little things. I think we could have had them and moved on and got problems solved. We were just unlucky and couldn't get the pieces put together in the time limit they gave us.
Wallinga: It is kind of unfortunate that we can't get the judges' data and the judges' results and see exactly where we were getting tripped up. I don't think by any means that they were overwhelmed by the problems. The problems they were working on were solvable and it sounded like they had a good approach, too, and were probably well on their way to solving some of them, but a couple of things just kind of stumped them. It would be nice to know exactly what those were, but I think if you look at the standings, those couple of little things that were holding us up were also holding the majority of the other teams up. The teams that take it very seriously and answer seven, eight, nine problems - they're the exception really. They're the elite of the 100 there. If you answer two or three problems, you're placing in the top half, and I still think we were right there. On a different day or with a slightly different set of problems, worded a little differently, I think we would have been fine.

Q: What else did you do in Sweden while you were there?
Kester: They wined and dined us pretty nicely. We were also able to meet up with some of the other teams.
Wallinga: The accommodations were great. The three different hotels were top of the line. IBM funded quite a few meals, which was nice. We got there a day or two early and just went out and found our own places to eat and explored the city. Taking in the atmosphere of the city and the history and the architecture was a really nice opportunity. On one of our free days, we had lunch with some of the other teams from our area - the students and professors from Iowa State University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln - so that was a neat opportunity, to be halfway around the world and be able to meet up with these people that are just a couple of hours away. There were also some opportunities for sight-seeing. One of the restaurants we ate at was in what they call the "Old Town" part of the city, which is even more historic than the rest of it. One of the days, IBM sponsored a trip out to the Fortress, which no longer serves a military purpose. It's now a bed and breakfast, but it used to be a military stronghold, so there were still cannons and cannon balls.

Q: What was your favorite part about being there?
Kester: The actual competition. There was just a lot of excitement. There were so many teams that had spent so much time getting ready for it. It was just a great atmosphere.
Van Wyk: Second to that, I'd say just being in the city. It was the first time I had ever been out of North America.
Wallinga: The contest itself involved some historic sites. The opening ceremonies were held in the city hall area. I don't even know how to describe it. The awards ceremony and the closing ceremony were held in the same auditorium where the Nobel Prizes are given out each year. That was a neat feeling - to be sitting in those seats wondering who else had sat there in the past.

Q: Is there anything you took away from the trip, either from the competition or from being in Sweden?
Kester: It was good just to have the experience. Many of the top young minds were there, and it sounds a little odd to talk about it, but actually seeing their faces and interacting with those people, we realized they weren't much different from us. They had to work with the same problems we did.
Calsbeek: It gives me a new appreciation for the problems. They give you 20-some years of previous questions to practice, but really going over those and sitting down for five hours and trying to solve one is completely different. It was very interesting.
Van Wyk: The appreciation of the minds of other people - how gifted and bright and smart they are. To be able to solve nine of those problems in five ours is very impressive.
Wallinga: It was one of those make the world seem smaller type of experiences. You're surrounded by all different people speaking different languages, but they're all working on the same problems. It was just a neat experience to be part of.
Kester: It would have been nice to know what those Russians were saying, though.

This article appeared in the May 2, 2009 edition of The N'West Iowa REVIEW.

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