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Science Spotlight: CS Majors Vie in Coding Contest

By Will Henriques

On Friday, April 12, Paul Donnelly ’15, Matei Epure ’16 and Chris Matteri ’13 travelled to Siena College in Loudonville, New York, to compete in the 18th annual Conference of the Northeast Region of the Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSCNE 2013).

The three Middlebury students came out among the top; they placed second in a field of 33 teams from schools across the Northeast.

Daniel Scharstein, professor of computer science and chair of the computer science department, noted in an email that he was pleased by the strong Middlebury performance: “The CCSC contest is a regional contest [and] in past years, Middlebury’s team has won this contest several times (though not in the last three or four years).”

The competition is just one of several to which Middlebury sends a team. Another competition Middlebury competed in past years is the Association for Computing Machinery(ACM)-International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). The competition’s website touts the ACM-ICPC as “the oldest, largest and most prestigious programming contest in the world.”

Though the Middlebury team hasn’t done particularly well in past years, Scharstein is optimistic that with the spike in computer science enrollments and an influx of experience, the team will be competitive in the future.

A host of Middlebury students and two professors, Scharstein and Frank Swenton, professor of mathematics, are competing in the Google Code Jam, an international competition designed to bring together professional and amateur programmers alike to solve tough coding problems. This year, 21,278 people participated in the first round with 17,000 advancing to the next round (including all of the Middlebury participants). In the following round, only 3,000 will advance.

Tom Dobrow ’16, one of the students competing in the Google Code Jam, spoke of his eagerness to continue competing in coding competitions.

“I heard of [the contest] only a few days before the competition from my professor who offered extra credit to students who could advance past the qualifier round,” he said. “The first round was very casual, with little pressure, but apparently all subsequent rounds are very challenging. I don’t think any of us expect to get much further in the competition. [However], I look forward to doing competitions like this in the future, especially those where I can compete on a Middlebury team.”

Matteri, a member of the second-place team at CCSCNE, benefited from the competitive coding.

“These contests help me realize how much I still have to learn as a coder, since being forced to code under pressure reveals what you know well and what could use improvement,” he wrote in an email.

The benefits of knowing how to code and competing at a high level extend beyond the mere personal intellectual challenge. Technology is an integral part of everyday life and coders are the innovators and the inventors when it comes to how society uses the available technology. Good coders are at a premium, and yet “it is interesting (and disconcerting) that of the 500 participants last year in the semifinal round [of the Google Code Jam], only 25 were Americans,” wrote Swenton.

He continued, ”As the world continues deeper into the Information Age, the U.S. is not producing even close to enough good programmers to fill the demand present in the job market.  I think this is a great thing for students to participate in — it’s competitive, it’s fun, it gives them a reason to hone and practice extremely valuable skills, and, if they do well enough, it can help to pave the road to a great job.”

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