University of North Texas Wins Programming Contest

The IEEEXtreme Programming Contest—a 24-hour, online worldwide student challenge— was held on 8 March

16 May 2008

Three IEEE student members from the University of North Texas, in Denton, have won the second IEEEXtreme Programming Contest—a 24-hour, online worldwide student challenge—held on 8 March.

Team members Robert Mitchell-Burk, Michael Mohler, and John Rizzo, along with their IEEE student branch, will receive plaques, certificates, and other prizes for their hard work.

Their victory came in spite of a slight setback.

“Our university buildings were actually closed due to inclement weather, so we did the competition from my apartment,” says Rizzo. “It was pretty comfortable, but the apartment was a bit small, so spending 24 hours in a row there was interesting.”

More than 350 graduate and undergraduate student members took part in the online challenge, which saw participants fielding 16 problems dealing with topics like cosine similarities and telephone-keyboard-input recognition. Volunteer proctors sat with the teams to oversee the process. There were three students to each team, and each student branch or university could have more than one team.

Hoping to repeat the success of the first challenge, which drew more than 125 student participants, organizers kept to the “extreme” 24-hour, no-sleep-allowed format, releasing new, often time-consuming problems every 8 hours to ensure students weren’t sneaking naps between questions. Students used e-mail to send their solutions back to the challenge center.

This year’s competition saw the number of participants more than double, with 130 teams representing student branches or universities from 31 countries, compared to 47 teams from little more than 10 countries in December 2006, the last time the contest had been held.

Top scorers this year hailed from Carnegie Mellon University’s Qatar Campus, in Doha; the University of Cyprus, in Nicosia; the University of California, in San Diego; Germany’s Jacobs University, in Bremen; Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran; the University of Florida, in Gainesville; Technical University of Catalonia, in Barcelona, Spain; and Bilkent University, in Ankara, Turkey.

“IEEEXtreme really was extreme—24 hours of nonstop problem solving, coding, and debugging,” says Rishav Bhowmick, of Carnegie Mellon. “It was an intense, but good experience.

“We had two teams participating, and we were coding in one of our computer groups, and whenever someone not taking part in the competition looked in and saw a bunch of people around the computers, all hurriedly solving all these problems, their jaws dropped. That was one of my favorite moments.”

While much of the feedback was positive, some of the students had tips on how to improve next year’s competition.

SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVEMENT “E-mail is a pretty backward way to submit answers,” says Jordan Rhee of the University of San Diego, bluntly echoing one gripe shared by many of the students interviewed. His suggestion? “Build a Web interface that lets you upload submissions directly, and shows when and which problems you have submitted.”

According to Laura Durrett, manager of IEEE Student Activities, the area that organized the event, plans are underway to automate the submission process for the next Xtreme contest. Durrett also noted the participant’s enthusiasm “was amazing.”

Another suggestion, from Bhowmick, was that essential competition information, which was provided when the challenge began, be released much further in advance. “Tell us ahead of time about the logistics of grading, turning in programs, and building files—that’s a bad thing to spring on us at the last minute,” adds Rhee.

Overall, though, students seemed to enjoy their time with the competition. Many described the questions as “creative” and “challenging.” Although, to some, the hardest problem was staying awake.

“The challenge went really smoothly and it was definitely better than the previous one,” says Demos Pavlou, of the University of Cyprus. “The greatest challenge, though, was that we had to stay awake for the whole day. The best moment was the end of the competition when I could finally sleep.

“But I didn’t have a least favorite moment, because all the problems were very exciting and they made us put our skills to test,” he added.

For more information on the IEEEXtreme contest, visit http://www.ieee.org/xtreme.

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