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March 5, 1997

University of Washington computing team tops elite universities at international programming contest

Top computer science students from Stanford, MIT and Harvard were no match for a team of three University of Washington students who were runners up at the Association for Computing Machinery’s annual International Collegiate Programming contest Sunday (Mar. 2) in San Jose.

“Our team finished a close second out of an initial field of roughly 1,000, besting teams from essentially every major university in the world,” said Ed Lazowska, chairman of the UW computer science and engineering department. “This is really a fantastic accomplishment.”

The UW team and a group from the University of Queensland in New Zealand tied for second place behind Harvey Mudd College, an elite engineering school in southern California. Trailing after them were teams from many top universities in the United States as well as Russia, Korea, China, Taiwan and about 15 other countries.

UW team members were computer science and engineering undergraduates Yih-Chun Hu of Lake City, Wash., and Chris Prince of Maple Valley, Wash., and graduate student Doug Zongker of Olathe, Kan. Corey Anderson, a graduate student from Tukwila, Wash., was the team coach, and Professor Dan Weld served as faculty adviser.

To get to the international competition, the UW squad first beat 43 teams at the Pacific regional contest held in late November in Seattle. The top two or three teams from each of 20 regional contests held around the world went on to the international finals in San Jose, which were sponsored by Microsoft. (UW and Stanford represented the Pacific Region in the finals.)

On Sunday, the 50 finalists assembled in an exhibit hall in the San Jose Convention Center to match wits. Each team, armed with a single desktop PC and whatever reference materials they could carry, was given five hours to solve eight programming problems. A dull roar of clicking keyboards and tense whispers filled the room as contestants tackled such challenges as translating a message of garbled Morse code and developing a spreadsheet program.

Teams were ranked by the number of problems they solved correctly. Among teams that solved the same number of problems, ranking was determined by the least number of penalty points. One penalty point was assessed for every minute a team took to solve each problem, and 20 penalty points were assessed for each incorrect solution submitted. (If the judges rejected an initial solution, teams were allowed to try again.)

The UW squad was among six teams that correctly solved six problems. The Husky programmers, along with the University of Queensland group, collected 916 penalty points — just 16 points behind the first-place Harvey Mudd team. Other teams that finished in the top 10, in descending order, were: National Taiwan University; University of Waterloo, Ontario; Umea University; Comenius University, Bratislavia; St. Petersburg State University; MIT; Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology.

The UW students credit the department of computer science and engineering’s solid training in applied algorithms and software as well as helpful pre-contest practice sessions led by Anderson for the team’s strong showing.

“I think that we worked together enough in the weeks leading up to the competition that we could divide up time and problems effectively,” said Zongker, the only UW team member with previous experience competing at the international finals. “I didn’t expect to do nearly that well. I was hoping to be maybe in the top ten, but tying for second was a complete shock.”

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