Programming team to compete in world finals

For the second year in a row, a team of three Northwestern College students has been chosen as one of 100 teams from six continents to compete in the Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest’s world finals. This school year’s event will take place in Harbin, China, Feb. 1–6.

Northwestern, the only Iowa school to be selected, received an at-large bid after its team finished in third place in the North Central regional on Oct. 31. Last April a Northwestern team competed in the 2009 world finals in Stockholm, Sweden.

Northwestern is among 22 U.S. colleges and universities invited to the 2010 finals, including Carnegie Mellon, Duke, MIT, Stanford and the University of Chicago. They will be competing with students from last year’s champion, Russia’s St. Petersburg State University of Information Technology, Mechanics and Optics, as well as Chinese University of Hong Kong, the University of Buenos Aires and the University of Helsinki, to name a few. Seven thousand teams from over 1,800 colleges in 88 countries participated in regional competitions this fall.

Members of the Northwestern team are John Calsbeek, a senior computer science major from Orange City; Mark Haselhoff, a junior computer science and mathematics major from Schaller, Iowa; and Curt Van Wyk, a senior mathematics teaching and computer science major from George, Iowa. Calsbeek and Van Wyk were on the team that competed in Sweden.

“John, Mark and Curt are not only good programmers, but they are detail-oriented and well-rounded students who have what it takes to figure things out,” says Mike Wallinga, instructor in computer science. “They are such inquisitive individuals—they think about problems in their spare time and do coding for fun. They have this natural curiosity and desire to learn. I have confidence they will be prepared for the finals.”

The students say team dynamics are a key to their success. “We’re all good programmers and good problem-solvers,” says Van Wyk, “but each of us has strengths in different areas, so we mesh together well to make a stronger team.”

With two of the three having competed in the finals last April, the team will enter the China competition knowing what to expect. “It’s just a fun experience,” says Calsbeek. “It’s really interesting being in a huge room with around 300 nerds, hearing 50 to 60 different languages.”

The Northwestern students plan to try a different strategy in China than they used in Sweden. “Last year we each worked on our own problem, but the problems at the finals are so much harder than at regionals so we feel like we need to combine forces and focus on the ones that seem to have the best potential for us,” says Calsbeek. The students plan to begin practicing for finals soon, working on problems from previous world finals and participating in online practice competitions.

The Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest, referred to as the Battle of the Brains, is in its 34th year and sponsored by IBM. It challenges students to solve real-world problems using open technology and advanced computing methods under a five-hour deadline. Huddled around a single computer, teams of three students collaborate to deduce the requirements, design test beds and build software systems under the scrutiny of expert judges. The winning team is the one that solves the most problems in the fewest attempts within the least amount of time.