Programming team to compete in world finals

When 100 teams consisting of the world’s brightest young computer programming talent gather in Stockholm, Sweden, April 18–22 to compete in the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, Northwestern College will be among only 21 U.S. colleges and universities represented.

Northwestern, the smallest U.S. school to have a team invited to the world finals, qualified after solving all nine problems at a regional competition in November. The Northwestern team will compete with students from MIT, Moscow State University, Oxford, Stanford, the University of Melbourne and the University of Warsaw, to name a few. Other schools advancing from the Midwest include Iowa State University, Purdue, the University of Chicago, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Wisconsin and Washington University in St. Louis.

More than 7,100 teams representing 1,838 schools competed in regional contests for the right to advance to the world finals. At the competition, teams of three will be challenged to use their programming prowess and mental endurance to solve eight to 10 complex, real-world problems—a semester’s worth of curriculum—in just five hours. Problems have ranged from designing an instant translation device to helping commuters get to work faster through mass transit systems. The team solving the most problems correctly in the least time emerges as the champion.

Members of the Northwestern team are John Calsbeek, a junior computer science major from Orange City; Ben Kester, a senior actuarial science and computer science major from Urbandale, Iowa; and Curt Van Wyk, a senior mathematics teaching and computer science major from George, Iowa.

The students, along with computer science professors Mark Vellinga and Mike Wallinga, will leave Thursday morning, April 16, for Stockholm. They will spend Friday sightseeing before taking part in a variety of competition activities from Saturday through Tuesday. They will return to Orange City on Wednesday, April 22.

The students say their goal is to finish in the top half of the 100 teams. Even more than that, says Kester, they want to “represent Northwestern, Christ and the U.S.A. well.”

The Northwestern team’s approach is to work from the easiest to the hardest problems. Calsbeek tries to solve the first one while the other two figure out which one to do next and what strategy to employ. Van Wyk does the more math-oriented problems. “We’re focused on getting more problems done correctly rather than taking less time to do them,” says Kester.

“These guys have definitely found their dynamic,” says Wallinga. “From what I’ve seen, no problem is unsolvable for them. They’d rather get it right than skip it and move on. They have confidence they can solve it.”

The students have been preparing this semester by working on problems from previous world finals and participating in online practice competitions. They also watched some MIT lectures on algorithms they downloaded from the Internet.

Kester is the only one of the three who has traveled abroad previously. They say one of the things they’re looking forward to the most is meeting students from other teams.

Kester will be blogging from the competition at More information on the finals can be found at

The competition, in its 33rd year, is sponsored by IBM.

Sioux City Journal article, 4-16-09