IEEEXtreme Ambassadors Get Students Ready for Competition Day

A new volunteer program helps recruit and train participants for the 24-hour coding contest

19 August 2015

It had 150 participants when it launched in 2006 and grew to more than 5,500 in 2014, but that’s not enough for the organizers of the IEEEXtreme Programming Competition. They want more. And on 24 October, they hope to have more—a lot more—thanks to the work of some 200 volunteers recruited during the past year. Their job: to poke around their local student branches and stir up interest in the competition.

“It’s difficult to reach all our students around the globe,” says Mark Pelham, IEEE’s student programs coordinator, based in Piscataway, N.J. Adds IEEE Member Prasanth Mohan, who leads the public relations effort for the program, “Many IEEE student members are still unaware the contest even exists. Others don’t sign up because they lack the educational resources and mentors needed to prepare for it.”

That’s why the IEEEXtreme Ambassador program was launched a year ago. IEEE student members who signed on visited local student branches to let them know about the competition and how to enter it. They also organized training workshops and connected participants with mentors—generally other local IEEE members, including graduate students.

Mohan sees the ambassador’s role as a great opportunity for those who want to get involved in their local sections and, especially, to help introduce other students to a global programming community. In particular, he’s looking for people with volunteer experience who have been involved with IEEEXtreme in the past.

FOLLOW THE LEADERBOARD

IEEEXtreme is known for its challenging programming problems; more than 20 have to be solved in a grueling 24-hour period. None is a problem found in standard textbooks. One year, participants had to develop software for running a farm. Students were told how many offspring typical farm animals like pigs, chickens, and cows produce and how often, as well as the amount of meat, eggs, and dairy that had to be sold and shipped for the farm to be financially viable. The goal was to write a program that calculated the number of animals necessary to sustain the business. Another year, participants had to translate one computer language into another.

In the past, this type of real-world challenge surprised novices to the competition, says Mohan. That’s where the ambassadors come in. They advise would-be participants to subscribe to HackerRank, a platform specifically designed for programming contests. Here students can find programming problems to practice and develop skills that the competitive programming contest demands, says Pelham. The HackerRank website also displays rankings on its leaderboard, using a term borrowed from the video games industry. Would-be participants can see how they measure up against others who’ve registered for the competition. One’s ranking is based on the difficulty of the problem and how quickly it was solved.

Ambassadors also organized training workshops in which mentors and past participants help students solve problems. E-mail reminders also go out with dates of related upcoming events and deadlines relevant to the programming competition, as well as information on educational resources, such as free online programming courses from the IEEE Academic website. The courses there are available in several languages. And as the competition date nears, the ambassadors help find places for students to settle into during the 24-hour competition.

This year, Mohan notes, special attention is being paid to recruiting more female students into the competition, and ambassadors have been working with IEEE Women in Engineering to get the word out.

The organizers are also throwing in a few problems tailored to beginners in hopes of attracting novice competitors.

AMBASSADORS MAY STILL APPLY

Just how successful the ambassadors’ recruiting efforts will prove won’t be known until registration is over on 12 October. Registration opens on 17 August. Anyone wishing to be an ambassador is still welcome to apply. Help during the competition could be invaluable.

In the midst of the pressure of the competition, ambassadors will also be there to remind students to have a good time, Pelham says. “Some will make sure there’s food and soft drinks available and will play music during the contest,” he adds. “IEEEXtreme is not only mentally challenging—it should also be entertaining, and the importance of that should not be underestimated.”

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