April 18, 2024

UW-Madison keeps alive its 20-year streak in international computer competition | Higher education

COVID-19 didn’t stand a chance of breaking UW-Madison’s participation streak in the oldest, largest and most prestigious computer programming contest in the world.

The university’s team placed 17th out of 117 teams at the International Collegiate Programming Contest world finals in Moscow last fall, the results of which were recently released. It’s the 20th consecutive year UW-Madison has made it to the world finals, a title no other school in North America can claim, according to the university’s Computer Sciences department.

The competition challenges teams of three students with one computer to crack 15 problems within five hours. For most people, the questions read like a foreign language with various math symbols sprinkled throughout the sentences. One problem, for example, asked students to design routes for two maintenance men clearing the snow off a university’s sidewalks that minimizes the total distance traveled.

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Former students from previous UW-Madison teams include Zef RosnBrick, director of engineering at Facebook; Lei Chen, chairman and CEO of Chinese agricultural tech platform Pinduoduo; and Scott Diehl, senior software engineering manager at the Google lab in Madison.

Computer Sciences Professor Dieter van Melkebeek recruits and coaches the students. He has led the team since UW-Madison began competing in 2001, even when he was on sabbatical.

Computer whizzes Jirayu Burapacheep, Ziyi Zhang and Nitit Jongsawatsataporn made up the UW-Madison team that competed in Moscow in October. Zhang is from China while the other two hail from Thailand.

Initially, a different student, Dung Viet Bui, was scheduled to compete in place of Jongsawatsataporn. Bui, however, learned he would be unable to return to the U.S. after traveling to Russia for the competition due to visa complications. He agreed to let Jongsawatsataporn take his place in the in-person competition.

Substitution is normally not allowed, but van Melkebeek negotiated with the competition’s president for an exception because of the pandemic.

Another COVID-19 complication that arose: UW-Madison wouldn’t sign off on the trip, with officials deciding it was not considered “essential travel,” van Melkebeek said. The students paid their own way and took safety precautions, such as daily testing.

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Teams competing in the world finals were among the best in regional competitions that pull 300,000 participants around the world. They are judged by the number of problems they solve and then by the speed with which they come up with answers.

A Russian team took first in the world finals, solving 12 of the 15 problems, van Melkebeek said. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology ranked first among U.S. teams, solving 10 problems. UW-Madison placed fourth among U.S. teams, solving eight problems.

“I do think we can try to be the top U.S. team,” van Melkebeek said. “We’re getting there. Fourth is not bad. This incoming team is even stronger.”

That team will start competing in regional competitions later this month.