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Battle of the Brains

The latest results of an international Battle of the Brains programming contest could spell bad news for the U.S. tech industry.

The University of Illinois tied for seventeenth place in the world finals of the Association of Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest, held this year in Shanghai, April 3-7. It’s the lowest ranking for the top-performing U.S. school in the competition’s 29-year history. Students from Shanghei Jaio Tong University finished first, followed by Moscow State University and St. Petersburg Institute of Fine Mechanics and Optics.

The California Institute of Technology, Duke University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were the only other U.S. schools to finish in the competition, tying for twenty-ninth place.

This year, 78 teams competed in the World Finals contest; more than 4,100 teams from 71 countries competed in regional contests worldwide. Students had to solve 10 complex, real-world programming problems under a five-hour deadline. Shanghai Jaio Tong University correctly solved 8 out of 10 problems. The contest, known as the Battle of the Brains, requires students to rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design test beds and build software systems to solve these problems.

Students from Asian and Eastern European schools have won the competition over the last eight years; Harvey Mudd College in 1997 was the last U.S. school to take top honors.

Solving real-world problems, quickly

According to IBM, which sponsors the Battle of the Brains, the contests pits teams of three university students against others to solve eight or more complex, real-world problems, with a grueling five-hour deadline. Huddled around a single computer, competitors race against the clock in a battle of logic, strategy and mental endurance.

Teammates collaborate to rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design test beds and build software systems that solve the problems under the intense scrutiny of expert judges. For a well-versed computer science student, some of the problems require precision only. Others require a knowledge and understanding of advanced algorithms. Still others are simply too hard to solve—except, of course, for the world's brightest problem-solvers, say the organizers.

Says IBM: Judging is relentlessly strict. The students are given a problem statement—not a requirements document. They are given an example of test data, but they do not have access to the judges' test data and acceptance criteria. Each incorrect solution submitted is assessed a time penalty. The team that solves the most problems, in the fewest attempts, in the least cumulative time is declared the winner.

About the Author

Kathleen Ohlson is senior editor at Application Development Trends magazine.

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