U.Va. Computer Science Students Off to Stockholm for World Finals in Programming

April 16, 2009  — A team of University of Virginia computer science students is heading to Stockholm this week to compete in a world finals competition for computer programming.

The IBM-sponsored Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, "Battle of the Brains," brings together the most talented computer programmers from the world's top universities to face off over a series of real-world computing problems.

The U.Va. team – second-year engineering students Briana Satchell and Calvin Li and third-year engineering student George Washington – earned its spot in the World Finals by besting 148 computer programming teams this past fall in the regional contest. The trio was among more than 7,100 teams worldwide vying for a spot in the competition.

U.Va.'s team is now among 100 finalists competing for the "World's Smartest" trophy. Other U.S. teams will come from schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford University and fellow mid-Atlantic region winner the University of Maryland. 

During the competition, to be hosted April 18-22 by KTH-Royal Institute of Technology, teams will use their programming skills to solve complex, real-world problems such as developing a routing program to ensure secure business transactions over the Internet, optimizing traffic flows, plotting the most efficient route for a hospital helicopter and designing a Global Positioning System navigation program.

Additionally, as part of the week's events, finalists will hear from top IBM experts and analysts about leading-edge research on cloud computing, green information technology and gaming technologies.

For the past eight months, the U.Va. team has been training up to three times a week under the guidance of coach Aaron Bloomfield, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science's Department of Computer Science. While some teams will have had the benefit of two semesters' worth of coursework dedicated to the event's challenges, Bloomfield's students have been training for the competition as an extracurricular activity. The Computer Science Department does not offer curriculum specifically geared toward the competition, opting instead for a more universal approach to teaching problem-solving skills. It's an approach designed to benefit students beyond the competition.

Bloomfield said the dynamic nature of students on this team reflects the varied fields to which computer science applies. Washington is a dual major in computer science and chemical engineering; Satchell is a dual major in computer science and computer engineering; Li is triple-majoring in computer science, economics and philosophy. 

"Computer science pervades all fields," Bloomfield said. "You pick the challenge and there is going to be a computer scientist working on it, whether it's searching for a cure for cancer, modeling molecules for new drugs or developing new systems for space flight."

Satchell entered college with aspirations of an industry career, but has since decided to pursue an academic route. She plans to earn a Ph.D. in computer science and looks forward to applying her programming skills to address problems within the research area of programming languages.

For her, the competition and required training complement the theories, coding and algorithms she is learning in the classroom. While programming for research projects requires elegant, well-thought-out solutions, the competition engages students in quickly finding workable solutions.

The competition is an opportunity for Satchell and teammates to join with some of the greatest student computer programmers in the world. It will be a challenge, but one they are excited and honored to take on.

"The people who succeed at these events truly enjoy this type of coding," she said. "It will be exciting to gather with the top student programmers in the world to work on solving these problems."

— By Zak Richards