Thursday, September 10, 2009

Contests Follow-Up

This week has been a bit more preparation work. We've been discussing the surveys a lot as we hope to have that finalized sooner rather than later. Especially since September is slipping away oh so quickly. I imagine we'll at least have a prototype done within the next two weeks. Anybody willing to do a delightful fall survey?

That being said, a lot of my focus this week has been on the state of computer science contests in the United States. I found five specifically targeting middle or high school students that I found of note and will enumerate below.

SuperQuest: Not to be confused with the group that presented at CS4HS. SuperQuest was a competition for high school students. Teams were tasked with conceiving of a computational problem they found interesting. They'd create a proposal and submit it where a panel would pick out the most interesting proposals. The winners were then given the opportunity to model their problem on a supercomputer and in some cases the results were presented at various conferences.

Unfortunately, information on the SuperQuest program is rather scarce. Outside of an old paper linked on the Wikipedia page. I can't find any official information on the program suggesting it may have gone extinct at this point. That said, I feel like this program is interesting for a couple of reasons. For one, it makes the math/computer science relationship concrete. Students can use their already verbose backgrounds in mathematics and transform it into a computer science project giving them a readily available in. Additionally, it fosters teamwork, creating the proposal wasn't a solo activity. Further there is plenty of room for interdisciplinary projects. Just off the top of my head I can imagine modeling biological, chemical, and economic systems as being viable projects. It's a shame that information on this program is so scarce as I find this to be a fascinating idea.

A second contest I looked at was the USA Computer Olympiad. A contest running since at least 1992, this contest prepares and selects high school students for the International Olympiad of Informatics. The qualification contests are conducted over the Internet. A practice I think I like given that it offers more students the ability to compete as traveling to a central location isn't always feasible. However, the contest appears to be purely a test of programming. I investigated the online training website and the problems seem to be in the vein of, here's some input data, some output data, make 'em match. While it's everybody can participate nature is beneficial and online training materials are valuable, I feel this contest doesn't help us to move away from the computer science == programming paradigm. Additionally, skimming over quickly it looks like only 2 out of 68 students sent to the international competition from the USACO were women.

The ultimate goal of the USACO of course is the International Olympiad for Informatics which has apparently been operating since 1989. A skim shows quite a few women dotted amongst the crowds of competitors although without official designation of the competitiors I'm unsure just how prevalent they are.

Close to home, Slippery Rock University hosts an annual programming contest modeled off of the official ACM Intercollegiate Programming contest. Specifically, this targets the team programming disciplines that is touted by Meszaros and Kahle '07, Hazzan and Dubinsky '06, and many others. Unfortunately, it is a PROGRAMMING contest meaning the importance of the actual algorithms and analysis sometimes gets lost. The fact that the strategies page has a humongous section on I/O and a couple bullets about worrying about the actual problems suggests that algorithms isn't necessarily where the focus lies.

One final competition I looked at was the American Computer Science League competition. The first thing I have to mention about this is the fact that they include a short answer portion. If nothing else this contest I feel is valuable because it gets computer science off of the computer. That may have something to do with the fact that this is the only competition for "computer science" as the others have been for programming/informatics but I don't think this is a trivial difference. The problems featured in the sample problems aren't the most fascinating questions in the world (e.g. what does this program do?) but it's a start. The competition also includes a programming portion although with much misfortune the programming portion seems to be a solo exercise.

So none of these programming contests perfectly fit the ideal model I had in my head for a computer science competition but the fact that something exists I do feel is something positive and each of the contests offers a little bit of insight. I appreciate that there are competitions taking advantage of the agile programming and teamwork models to show how computer science is a team building exercise. I appreciate that there are contests that offer a written portion to show the idea that computer science can happen just as easily away from the computer as it can on it. I appreciate the ability to model interdiscplinary problems to promote a computer science way of thinking. If there is someplace we can combine all three in a way that is interesting, fun, and valuable to college applications is a question I'm going to continue asking.

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