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Students To Take on World's Best Programmers for 6th Year in Row

4/12/2012 5:57:00 AM Kirsten Keller

For Hassan Eslami, University of Illinois computer science PhD student, no two problems in computer science can be solved using the same approach.

“Usually problems in theoretical computer science have a feature that there is no routine mechanism to approaching them,” Eslami said. “When I try to solve problems, I start with lots of examples, and then I try to figure out what the pattern is in all the examples.”

Using these techniques, Eslami and two other computer science students, seniors Justin Kopinsky and Krishan Chockalingam, will advance to the world finals of the ACM Intercollegiate Programming Competition in Warsaw, Poland from May 14-18. 112 teams from all over the world will participate, with only 18 universities from the United States competing.

The three students, under the team name “ILLIAC,” qualified for the world finals when they placed first at the Mid-Central Regional Programming Contest in November of 2011. They beat teams from other schools including Northwestern, Illinois Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago.

“We have been fortunate to have the cream of the crop to work with,” said Marsha Woodbury, faculty advisor to Team ILLIAC.

According to Darko Marinov, associate professor in computer science and the coach of Team ILLIAC, a competitive local competition was held to pick students for the regional contest. Out of 30 participants, the top 15 were selected to form five three-member teams for the regional contest.

Team ILLIAC, which was the one team out of the five to advance to the world finals, is the ninth team in ten years from Illinois to compete in the world finals. Kopinsky also served on the Illinois ACM ICPC World Finals team in 2010.

The world finals will consist of a set of eight problems, and each team has five hours to complete as many as possible. Using a single computer, teams will rank the level of difficulty of the problems and proceed to figure out what needs to be done for each separate problem, design tests and ultimately build software systems that solve the problems.

“The very beginning of the competition is quite stressful. Since, at the beginning there are several problems which are quite easy, and thus you are trying to code as fast as possible. Towards the later part of the competition it’s a lot more relaxed, as time is no longer as important. The focus of the later part is a lot more intensive thinking, rather than a race to code as fast as possible,” said team member Krishnan Chockalingam.

Past problems include mapping the prime placement of a channel for farmland irrigation and improving travel times in mass transit systems.

“[W]e challenge the finalists to look past the codes they manipulate and engage in active problem solving for some of the most urgent issues facing our planet,” said Salvatore Vella, vice president of architecture and technology at IBM Software Group.

Last year, Illinois received honorable mention in the world finals.

“We have not explicitly specified [a] goal this year,” Eslami said. “The best ranking [by Illinois] was 17, by solving five problems. We will try to solve at least four to five problems and be in the ranking this year.”

Advancing to the world finals is something Eslami has wanted to do since studying as an undergraduate in Iran.

“It will be a great experience to compete with capable students in programming and algorithm,” Eslami said.