Illinois Earns First-Ever Medal in International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals

10/25/2021 9:02:15 AM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

For the first time in school history, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign team medaled at the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) World Finals.

Illinois programming team Must Pass photo.
Illinois team, "Must Pass," at the 2021 International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals in Moscow with co-coach Peiyao Sheng (second from right). 

By taking 11th place, the team “Must Pass” earned a bronze medal at the October 5 event. This team included graduate students Zihan Wang and Zhuolin Yang and undergraduate student Yen-Hsiang Chang. They were coached by Illinois CS professor Mattox Beckman and CS PhD student Peiyao Sheng.

ICPC is an enormous competition in scope, as it includes more than 50,000 students, more than 3,000 universities and 400 on-site competitions per year. The finals, alone, included more than 100 teams.

“It is amazing,” Beckman said of the ICPC experience. “Other than the intrinsic rush of emotion that comes from competing at a high level, these students get networking opportunities for life. Many of the founders of the major tech companies in the world were ICPC competitors before, and success on this stage this puts new groups of students in that community forever.”

The Illinois student participants went to Moscow for the finals this year, where teams of three university students attempted to solve eight or more complex, real-world problems, with a grueling five-hour deadline.

The problems are designed to test logic, strategy and mental endurance. The teammates collaborate to rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design test beds, and build software systems that solve the problems under the intense scrutiny of expert judges.

Beckman said that judges track two numbers for each team; the number of problems they solve, and the total number of minutes needed to solve them. If a submitted problem turns out wrong, there is a 20-minute penalty. 

Of all the teams competing at the finals, only the top 13 teams receive medals. 

As a Must Pass teammate, Chang said that each team member has strengths that create specific roles on the team. Wang is well-versed in graph theory and combinatorial problems, as his strength centers on mathematics. Yang specializes in computational geometry and data structures, which comes from his interest in implementing problems with long code.

As the team fully learned their roles and approach to the competition after several hundred trainings, Chang took on any of the problems from other areas.

“Winning a medal at the ICPC World Finals means a lot to me,” Chang said. “First of all, winning a medal in ICPC was one of the goals I set during my freshman year, and the success in Moscow draws a perfect end. Second, competing in ICPC is not only for the contest itself, but it totally changes my college life and enlarges my social circle.”

Mattox Beckman
Mattox Beckman

As co-coach, Beckman cited a strong belief in ICPC as an activity stemming from its leadership’s commitment to servanthood – especially regarding student participants. 

“They see solving problems on the computer as an extension of the humanist-scientist drive to make the world a better place, and they model it as best they can,” Beckman said. “By participating, students develop skill and confidence when they participate in programming challenges and contests. Students have reported to me that they find other programming assignments in other courses to be much easier afterward. I had one PhD student tell me that he was much more effective in his research as a result. 

“I truly believe that every CS student would benefit from participating in this.”

The road to the 2020 finals for Must Pass included two rounds of qualifying competitions. First, regional contests were broken up into 13 regions and took place around the country. Then the North American Championship included about 45-65 teams, of which the top 15 qualified for the world finals.