11 Nov UW-Madison computer team heads to world finals for ninth straight year
A computer team from the University of Wisconsin-Madison got official notification on Nov. 10 that it will be heading to Harbin, China, for the world championship in February.
UW-Madison has sent a team to the world finals for nine years running, says team coach, associate professor of computer science Dieter van Melkebeek.
A team named “Wrong Answer” came in first among 201 teams at the North Central North America Regional Programming Contest finals, held Oct. 31 at UW-Parkside in Kenosha. The event is organized by the Association of Computing Machinery and sponsored by IBM. UW-Madison had four teams in the regional competition.
Two of Wrong Answer’s members, computer science graduate students David He and Chris Hopman, went to the world finals last year. Zef RosnBrick, a junior, is the third member.
Competitive computing can be intense, says Van Melkebeek. Each team gets 10 problems to solve in five hours. They must write their solution into computer code that will crank out the correct answer within an allotted period.
Van Melkebeek starts recruiting team members in the fall, asking each one to commit a certain amount of hours each week to the project. During practice, team members solve problems from previous competitions. The first step in the solution is to develop an algorithm, or plan of attack, which then becomes the basis for computer code that will work no matter what data the judges decide to input.
The three team members are allotted only one computer, so they must work together. “Sometimes that’s been an issue,” says Van Melkebeek. “We try to take that into account before we compose the teams.”
Time management is a key challenge, Van Melkebeek says. “You have to split up the time, somebody is coding, and obviously you need the computer for that, but you don’t need a computer for the algorithm.”
Van Melkebeek, who teaches a class in algorithms, says students are already familiar with the basics: “Divide and conquer” reduces the problem to easy chunks. “Greedy” treats the individual components of the problem as if they would not affect the other components, which may be good enough in some cases.
Success in the regional competition looks great on a resume, says Van Melkebeek, whether the student is applying for graduate school or a job. One hundred teams, the survivors of about 7,000 teams from the first round, will compete in China.
Teams need not solve all 10 problems to win a competition, Van Melkebeek adds. “But this year, at the regionals, Wrong Answer solved all of them. They sent the last problem in 30 seconds before the end and were the only team to solve all 10.”