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U.Va. Computer Science Students Return to World Finals for Programming in China

January 25, 2010 — For the second time in as many years, a team of University of Virginia computer science students will compete in a world finals competition for computer programming. Next week, the team will be heading to Harbin, China, for the IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest.

The ACM contest brings together talented student computer programmers from 100 of the world's top universities to compete over a series of real-world computing problems.

The U.Va. team – fourth-year engineering student George Washington and third-year engineering students Briana Satchell and Calvin Li – earned its spot in the world finals last fall by beating 148 programming teams in the mid-Atlantic regional contest. The team was among more than 7,100 teams worldwide vying for a spot in the competition.

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

During the competition, to be hosted Feb. 1-6 by Harbin Engineering University in China, teams will use their programming skills to solve complex, real-world problems. Examples of past problems include designing a global positioning system program and safely landing planes in an air traffic control simulation.

As part of the week's events, finalists will attend symposiums put on by top IBM experts and analysts and also visit the Harbin International Snow and Ice Festival, billed as the world's largest display of snow sculptures.

As returning world finalists, the U.Va. team has been training with lessons from last year's competition in mind. They also benefit from having worked as team since fall 2008. Aaron Bloomfield, an assistant professor in computer science and the team's coach, says he has always recognized the individual talents of the team, but has seen their ability to play off each other's strengths and weaknesses grow over the years.

In addition to studying more of the difficult problems from past world finals, Satchell emphasized the importance of taking a team approach to solving some of the problems.

"Our typical approach had always been to divide and conquer; we each chose a problem we liked and went from there," Satchell said. "We noticed at last year's world finals that a large number of successful teams were working on individual problems in groups and that we could benefit from that approach."

The trip to this year's world finals represents a homecoming for Li. His family has a history in the region's scientific community; his grandparents were faculty at the Harbin Medical University and his mother graduated from Harbin University with an engineering degree. Because of her academic achievements, Li's mother was one of the first females in the region allowed by the government to leave the country to study abroad. Also, as a child, Li lived in Harbin with his grandparents for several months.

During the world finals, his grandparents will take the team out for dinner and Li looks forward to seeing other relatives who live in the area.

Li's fluency in Chinese will be an asset to the team as they navigate the area and order in restaurants. After working as part of the team for the past two years, Li has learned not only his teammate's programming strengths and weaknesses, but also a bit about their particular palates.

"Some of my teammates are very peculiar about food," he said. "They would have an interesting time ordering off the menu with the various things that China has to offer."

With world finals' programming problems based on a variety of real-world situations, the team draws strength from the members' diverse fields of study. Washington is a dual major in computer science and chemical engineering; Satchell is pursuing a double major in computer science and computer engineering; and Li is a triple major in computer science, economics and philosophy.

Also, Satchell's inclusion provides a unique perspective.

"Last year, Briana was one of seven females from all 100 teams to compete," Bloomfield said.

Satchell has grown accustomed to competing in a male-dominated field. She participated in programming competitions while attending the Mathematics & Science High School at Clover Hill in Midlothian, along with current teammate George Washington. She believes a supportive environment, both in high school and now at U.Va., along with her mathematical aptitude, have contributed to her comfort level in the field.

Satchell now works to help other young women have a similar experience with computer science. She talks to students at her former high school about the benefits of pursuing a computer science education and getting involved in programming competitions. She is also working with fellow ACM members at U.Va. to host a high school programming competition for area students.

"I think having diversity in any field allows for different perspectives and different lines of thought," she said. "In engineering, I feel like this is even more critical. We will be designing products for the general population with people from all backgrounds who have different ways of thinking. Understanding the views of people with different backgrounds, genders and ethnicities and how these affect the way they use products will help us design products to better meet their needs."

— Zak Richards

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