CS Students Enhance Skills in Competitive Programming


By: Dina Manco

Each year, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) holds a programming contest for collegiate students across the globe. On November 7, four teams of three JMU students tested their programming and group collaboration skills in the Mid-Atlantic USA Regional Collegiate Programming Contest. The competition was sponsored by IBM and held at Radford University.

JMU students who attended were in the Competitive Programming Club or enrolled in CS 280: Programming Challenges where they are given practice problems to prepare for the competition.

Assistant Professor and Competitive Programming coach Dr. Mike Lam comments, “We don’t give them all the answers in class. So they have to go and figure out how to solve them on their own in many cases, and that’s something that is really important to employers. You don’t want an employee [who is] just going to sit there and wait for their boss to give them the solution. You want an employee that is able to take a problem and go find a solution for it.”

At the Radford competition, teams from local universities were in attendance while other competitions were held simultaneously at respective sites in D.C., eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, North Carolina, and West Virginia. There were a total of 185 teams in the region.

The students are given five hours to solve a series of computer programming problems using C++ or Java; the goal is to solve as many problems as possible in the least amount of time. Once a team solves a problem, they submit their work electronically to judges comprised of computer science-related professors. They are judged alongside teams from every site in the Mid-Atlantic Region. If a team’s answer is wrong, they may attempt to fix it and re-submit, but each incorrect submission adds twenty minutes to their scoring time. Therefore, if a team submits an incorrect product but later answers correctly, a different team who answered correctly with their first submission fifteen minutes after them will be ranked higher.

Teams at the ACM competition will typically solve up to two problems out of the eight or nine ACM provides. The first place winner of the Mid-Atlantic USA Regional Contest is guaranteed to move onto the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals in Thailand. While the JMU teams did not place in the competition this year, they acquired beneficial skills from participating.

Junior CS major Matthew Petty says, “I feel like [the competition] made me a better programmer and a better interview candidate too, because a lot of the tech companies you go to—they want to hear your thought process. So being in a team environment where you have to explain your solution to two other teammates before they’ll accept it is very important for you becoming a better speaker.”

Assistant Professor and Competitive Programming coach Dr. Chris Mayfield comments, “I think all of these skills transfer to other courses students take and ultimately into their careers, because everyone works with other people. In the CS industry, you’re often building large systems in teams of people, you need to be able to prioritize how you go about building the system, in what order, and when you need help you have to figure out what questions to ask and whom to ask the question…[Students] feel like it really brought a lot of things together that aren't explicitly taught in a content course.”

Students who attended the ACM competition this year will be eligible to compete again next fall. With experience and more practice, the JMU teams will be much stronger candidates for the 2016 Mid-Atlantic title.

Published: Thursday, February 11, 2016

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 21, 2017

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