Programming a bright future

It’s not every day that you avoid being eaten by digital zombies. But a team of U of L students has proven it’s just the way to earn a second-place finish at an international programming competition. 

The University’s programming contest team participated for the first time in the prestigious annual world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). Sponsored by IBM, the competition was held in St. Petersburg, Russia, last summer. 

The team, made up of Hugh Ramp (BSc ’13), who was a fourth-year physics student at the time, Christopher Martin, a fourth-year computer science student, Darcy Best (BSc ’11), a second-year MSc mathematics student, and coaches Dr. Howard Cheng (mathematics and computer science) and Dr. Kevin Grant (mathematics and computer science), took second prize in the open challenge competition that required students to write an artificial intelligence program that would successfully play a zombie-filled video game on the team’s behalf. 

Darcy Best (BSc ’11), front, Hugh Ramp (BSc ’13), left, and Chris Martin, right, are programming their way to the top.

The challenge was part of a larger competition in which nearly 30,000 students from around the world participated in regional contests, solving several complex computing problems within a gruelling, five-hour deadline. 

In this battle of logic, strategy and mental endurance, each team had to huddle around a single computer while addressing various problems. For example, the students had to quantify the impact of water pollution and determine how to get commuters to their destinations as quickly as possible without traffic congestion. 

In the end, among the 120 teams that advanced to the world finals, the U of L students placed third among  the Canadian competitors in the main event, 12th out of 23 North American teams and 80th overall. 

The competition, says Cheng, equips students for the real-world demands of computing. “You must work together under intense time constraints. There’s no room for any failure,” he says. What’s more, says Martin, preparing for the competition is often just as challenging as the contest. U of L students spent 15 to 20 hours a week – on top of their regular studies – practising sample computing problems. “The more time you put in, the better you will do,” he says. 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Best. “You have to learn to use new algorithms that aren’t taught in your courses. As a result, my coding skills have gone through the roof.” Those abilities, he says, have given him an advantage over his classmates, who often must invest considerable time becoming proficient at writing computer programs. 

Best, however, isn’t the only one whose ICPC experience has complemented his education. Teammate Ramp, for instance, has gone on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Alberta, providing further evidence that hands-on learning serves as a springboard to future success.