28 Mar 'Fluffy Bunnies' ready for Shanghai programming competition
Madison, Wis. — While Easter has come and gone, the University of Wisconsin-Madison still has rabbits around—rabbits that can solve complex equations.
Harmless Fluffy Bunnies, a team of three computer programming students at UW-Madison, will be traveling to Shanghai, China, from April 3 to 7 to compete in the world finals of the Association for Computing Machinery’s International Collegiate Programming Contest. The team entered the finals by taking first place in the North Central regional contest last November.
“It’s good practice – you write a lot of programs and learn to think of a lot of different issues,” team member Alex Frase said of the competitions. Frase will be joined by teammates Matthew Anderson and Patrick Davidson.
Each of the 78 teams in the final contest is given one computer and a set of 10 problems, such as finding the flight plan of a jet with a given fuel level and the velocity of a bullet fired through a series of windows. They have five hours to devise an algorithm for each problem, with full credit only given to completed systems.
According to Dieter van Melkebeek, coach of the Bunnies and a computer science professor at UW-Madison, one of the keys to the contest is teamwork. Since only one computer is available, team members need to learn what they are best at and be able to switch off in between problems.
“Typically, no one solves all the problems,” Melkebeek said. “It’s important which problems you pick because you may have strengths in some areas.”
Once they have written the program, it is submitted to the judges who put test data into the program and evaluate it. For the highest score, the programs need to be free of run-time errors and find the answer in a set amount of time – for this year, twice the amount of time it took the judges. If it fails either of these criteria, the judges send it back.
This will be the fourth year in a row that UW-Madison has competed in the world finals. Previous teams attended competitions in Hawaii, Hollywood and Prague. This year four teams from the university ranked in the top 20 at the regionals, and Team Q took second place.
Melkebeek said the teams weren’t always this successful, remembering it was difficult to convince the best students to join the team. As the competitions continued, more students wanted to become involved, and the coaches were able to send more teams along.
“We’ve become more serious in our department and university,” Melkebeek said.
To prepare for the competition, Frase said the team practices with problem sets from earlier competitions provided by the Association for Computing Machinery. The team simulates the competition’s settings by limiting themselves to one computer and five hours to work.
Despite their preparation, Melkebeek said he doubts the team will be able to take first place at the finals. Student teams from China and Eastern Europe are traditionally very difficult competitors, ignoring their studies and practicing with thousands of earlier problem sets.
Being unable to match this preparation puts Harmless Fluffy Bunnies at a disadvantage. “I don’t expect we’ll be the worst team, but we won’t be the best either,” Frase said.
Despite these predictions, the team is not fatalistic. Melkebeek said that the prestige of being a finalist helps the students out in finding a job, and software firms like Google and Microsoft regularly watch the competition. Contest sponsor IBM is also supporting the team members, offering internships to all finalists.
Melkebeek said that for this year the team has adopted a more reasonable goal: being the highest ranked team from the 11 North American districts.
“I think the top students from Madison can compete with the top students from any of these schools, [and] that’s what we would like to show,” Melkebeek said.