ACU Wins Regional Computer Programming Contest

for immediate release November, 1997

A team of Abilene Christian University computer science students proved they can solve problems under pressure by finishing first among Division II schools in a regional programming competition recently.

ACU sent two teams of three students each to the Association for Computing Machinery's regional contest at Rice University in Houston to compete against 63 other teams from colleges in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

The winning team, which placed sixth overall, included computer science majors Rajpaul Bagga, senior from Grand Junction, Colo.; Jeff Wilhite, junior from Garland; and Nathan Willis, senior from Abilene.

The second team included math major Mark Berry, senior from Atlanta, Ga.; and computer science majors Sidney Isaacs, junior from Austin, and Steve Reynolds, junior from Hawley.

The contest required each team to solve as many programming problems as possible in a set time. Each problem was turned in and graded immediately, taking into account the amount of time used to complete it.

Wilhite said his team's success can be attributed to what they have learned in their classes at ACU. "I was pleasantly surprised," he said. "I had never been to one of these competitions before. We practiced some, but all of our education has been prepatory. It wasn't just practice."

Isaacs agreed.

"Applying things we've learned in classes on the problems and seeing how to figure out different things was neat," Isaacs said. "A lot of it was what I had learned in my programming lab. That helped me a lot."

During the heat of competition, the teams' progress could be monitored through a window. For each correct answer a team gave, a balloon was attached to its computer.

Dr. Mike Frazier, assistant professor of computer science and the teams' sponsor said the competition was stiff. "I'm quite proud of them," he said. "It was interesting to see how almost nobody had any balloons and then to see our team had several."

In addition to meeting the challenges of a high-pressure environment and complex problems, the students said they also enjoyed the opportunity to get to know each other, their professor and students from other schools.

Examples of contest problems:

1) A group of friends got together to order a single pizza. Each member of the group gave a list of preferred and a list of despised toppings. The program had to determine whether there was any one pizza that would satisfy each member of the group, where a member was satisfied if at least one of the toppings he preferred was on the pizza or at least one of the toppings he despised was not on the pizza. The abstract problem of rapidly trying to satisfy simultaneously several lists of inclusions and exclusions is a central question in theoretical computer science and in cryptography. The ACU-1 team, which won, noticed this connection and was working on this problem as time ran out, Frazier said.

2) Volleyball statistics from several box scores need to be compiled. The challenge was that not all the players had stats in all the games, so the program had to sift through all the box scores looking for each player mentioned in any of them and compiling the stats from the box score of every game in which that player was mentioned.

3) In a genetics project, the teams were to imagine that a laboratory can clone specimens while altering particular genes. Given a description of a specimen, the program had to determine whether it was possible that the specimen could have been produced at this lab.

4) A fourth problem was to determine the last non-zero digit for the factorial of a number. The factorial of the number n (written "n!") is 1 times 2 times 3 times ... n. Thus 3! = 1 * 2 * 3 = 6, and 8! = 1 * 2 * 3 * 4 * 5 * 6 * 7 * 8 = 40320. The program, then, had to determine that the last non-zero digit of 3! is 6 and the last non-zero digit of 8! is 2. The program had to determine the correct answer for numbers up to 1000!, which is several thousand digits long. The challenge is that without clever tricks by the program, computers normally compute only numbers of about 10 or 20 digits in length.

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Last update: January 22, 1998