Ithaca High School wins Cornell programming contest

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Syl Kacapyr
students in programming contest
Jason Koski/University Photography
Students from Brighton High School participate in the Cornell programming contest in Gates Hall.

A team from Ithaca High School won first prize in the Cornell University High School Programming Contest April 3 in Gates Hall. Second prize went to a team from West Irondequoit High in Rochester. Third prize went to another Ithaca High School team, and honorable mention to a second team from West Irondequoit High.

The contest was created by Cornell research associate Robbert van Renesse,  Ithaca High School math and computer science teacher Frederick Deppe and Daniel Fleischman, graduate student in Operations Research and Industrial Engineering (ORIE), who has competed in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming contest. They were aided by 10 Cornell computer science and engineering graduate and undergraduate students and staff members. The event was intended initially as an enrichment activity at Cornell for Deppe’s students.

Modeled on the Association for Computing Machinery Intercollegiate Programming Contest, the competition presented eight problems to be solved by writing computer programs, including solving a word search puzzle, figuring the odds in a game of darts, stacking pancakes in size order, converting Roman numerals to Arabic, and tracking colors while eating M&Ms. Each team was provided a computer workstation and could work in any of several programming languages; every team chose the Java language, which van Renesse said is the most widely taught in high schools.

The programs must run correctly on the judges’ computer and finish their task in five seconds or less. The winner is the team that solves the most problems in the allotted three hours. If there is a tie, it is resolved in favor of the team that receives the fewest “penalties,” based on the time taken to solve the problems, programming errors and submitting wrong solutions.

The challenge is one of strategy as well as programming skill; a team must decide which problems it can solve most rapidly. Problems varied widely in difficulty. “We went out of our way to see they were mixed in an arbitrary order,” van Renesse said. Whenever a team successfully solved a problem, their table was given a balloon, a different color for each problem. If you knew the color code, you might guess which problems were the easiest by noticing that many teams had solved them, but only a team that has solved a problem and received a balloon would know what color matched that problem.

Over a break for lunch, Emin Gun Sirer, associate professor of computer science, presented an introduction to Bitcoin and its problems. “We wanted them to see something of computer science beyond programming,” van Renesse said.

The contest was open to any school, and six teams of two to three students entered – three from Ithaca High School, two from West Irondequoit High School and one from Brighton High School in Rochester. Ithaca High School’s winning team members were Rex Lei, Jensen Lo and Aryeh Zax, all of whom, along with Connor Simpson, made up the team that also took first place in the 26th annual high school programming contest at St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, N.Y., March 21, winning in a field of 17 teams from New York and Pennsylvania. Simpson was on Ithaca High School's third-place team in the Cornell contest , along with Gayathri Ganesan and Jesse Yuan.

The competition at Cornell will become an annual event, van Renesse said.

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