High school programming prelim emphasizes learning

The third annual Cornell High School Programming Contest Warm Up, a virtual computer programming competition, was less a contest and more a chance for budding programmers to hone their skills.

The event, held Feb. 27, encouraged participation by high school girls and other high school students from groups underrepresented in technology. It was held in advance of Cornell’s annual High School Programming Contest, which is open to all and will be held April 17.

Doral TreeSum, from Doral Academy in Florida, topped the field of 51 two- and three-person teams from 10 states; a total of 135 students competed in the event, during which teams had two hours to solve eight programming problems. In all, seven teams (including two from Half Hollow Hills High in Dix Hills, New York) were able to solve seven problems; teams earned points based on the difficulty of the problems and the time it took to solve them.

In addition to the student participants, the event featured 30 mentors – students from Cornell and Cornell Tech, as well as industry professionals – who were available to all teams for consultation. They popped in and out of the breakout rooms used by the student teams.

“[The mentors’ job] was to help the students have fun,” said Robbert van Renesse, professor of computer science and co-organizer of the event. “Solving problems is fun, but there are sometimes mundane programming details that can get in the way. … The mentors went in and helped them with those kinds of issues, so the students could focus on problem solving and programming. I was very pleased with how serious the mentors took their jobs.”

“The mentors don’t give the answers, but they help students strategize their problem-solving,” said Diane Levitt, senior director of K-12 education at Cornell Tech, which co-hosted the event.

“The focus is not on the winners, but on the process of competing,” Levitt said. “We want students who don’t necessarily hang out with competitive coders to feel they belong in the competition. We want them to learn from this event, so they develop confidence and skills for the April event.”

In addition to the contest, the students heard a presentation from Danielle Feinberg, supervising technical director at Pixar Animation Studios.

The April contest is open to all high school students in the U.S.; teams are given 10 to 12 problems to solve. Last year’s event was canceled due to the pandemic; the 2019 competition drew a record 182 students.

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Abby Butler