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03/17/2004 08:00:00

Caltech Coders Vie for World Title

PASADENA, Calif. – "March Madness" is a phrase usually associated with the NCAA basketball tournament--but not if your interest is computer code. In that case, your attention will be turned toward the city of Prague in the Czech Republic, and the finals of the seventh annual Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest.

Having bested almost 60 other teams in the Southern California Regionals, a three-member team of undergraduates will represent the California Institute of Technology at the finals in Prague that will take place from March 28 to April 1.

The three undergrads are sophomores Jacob Burnim and Adam D'Angelo, and senior Po-Shen Loh. Burnim and D'Angelo were on the team that competed in the world's finals last year.

To get to Prague, the teams had to survive an intense winnowing process. Institutions worldwide held matches to identify their best students, who then competed in preliminary contests against other universities. From there, the teams battled in the larger regional competitions. The Caltech team won the Western regional for the second straight year by defeating 58 other teams, including three other Caltech teams that finished third, eleventh, and fourteenth.

Now they are one of 73 teams worldwide to earn a spot at Prague. In the finals they will tackle a semester's worth of computer programming in one afternoon. The challenge is to solve eight or more complex, real world programming problems, within a tight five-hour deadline. Huddled around a single computer, competitors must race against the clock in a battle of logic, strategy, and mental endurance. Teammates collaborate to rank the difficulty of the problems, deduce the requirements, design test beds, and build software systems that solve the problems, all under the scrutiny of expert judges. The team that solves the most problems correctly in the least amount of time will emerge as the international champion, earning scholarships, bragging rights, and prizes.

Last year, the Caltech team finished in a tie for 13th place, and now obviously hope to improve upon that position. "This year's team did very well at the Southern California regionals, " says Ben Brantley, a computer science staff member and coach of the Caltech team. "All three members of our team also won last year; two on the first-place team, and one, Loh, on the second-place team.

"These students have a large amount of experience with programming competitions in general. All three have competed at international levels either in high school, college, or open events. I think they're really looking forward to doing well in Prague."

The ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest traces its roots to a competition held at Texas A&M in 1970. It quickly gained popularity as a way to assist in the development of top students in the emerging field of computer science. IBM has been the contest's sponsor since 1997. Today, participation has grown to involve over 23,000 students from more than 1,300 universities around the world.