Tuesday, June 6, 2023

CNU Takes Top Two Spots At Programming Competition

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NEWPORT NEWS—At the recent Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSC) conference held at Marymount University in Arlington, VA, Christopher Newport University students swept the top two spots of a team programming competition. A total of 17 teams from at least eight universities were given 10 problems to solve and four hours to do the work. The two CNU teams were the only ones to complete as many as seven questions.

“This is our first competition after covid,” said Dr. Mohammad Almalag, one of two team coaches—including Dr. Scott McElfresh—from the Department of Physics, Science, and Computer Engineering (PCSE). “Before going into the competition, we were hoping we would get a mid-score. Not to say we didn’t have faith in our teams, but we did not train as much as we were looking for last year. Most training should be in person where the students can solve problems together and write ideas down on paper.”

Upon hearing that “The Mongooses,” the first-place team, and “The Pushpins,” the second-place team had taken the top two spots, the students were excited, but wanted to finish the task at hand.

“Winning was really great,” said Almalag. “But after the teams got the news, they spent a good amount of time trying to figure out the problems they didn’t solve during the competition. I was trying to tell them to just enjoy the moment and we can talk about it on the way back. But they were so excited. It pays off. All the hard work they did and all the efforts they put into it, plus all the classes at CNU. It’s all combined together to put them where they were.”

Did they figure the other three problems out before they got back to CNU? Yes. “During the competition, we had a basic idea of how to do all of them,” said Team Mongoose member, William Reames. “We just didn’t have enough time to finish them all. At the very end, we were trying to crunch through to get one problem done, but we couldn’t implement it fast enough. But on the ride home, we figured out how to get it done.”

Considering that the CNU teams were up against other very smart students, who were well prepared, and that go to good schools, how were they able to have both teams come out on top over all the other schools?

“There is a collection of factors that probably played into it,” said Jack Linman, another student on Team Mongoose. “I came from a high school that had a computer science program, so familiarity with the subject already plays a big role. There is some subtlety in how you navigate reading a particular problem and converting the problem prompt—or problem description—into what amounts to an algorithm. There’s a little bit of cleverness in that. And then, honestly, most of it probably comes down to luck. It just depends on who decides to show up and how well you stack up against some of the other teams.”

Almalag believes it was more than that.

“One of the things that our program offers is probably more than a typical or traditional computer science program,” he said. “We offer a lot of programming courses. So, the students learn a lot of different programming languages and each of these languages has some different features, compared to the others. With all that combined together, that developed the mindset that the students have right now when it comes to programming. I always say to my students, programming is a skill. It’s not something you can learn and be good at it. You need to practice it, just like any sport. It’s a skill you have to spend time on, just like a football player or basketball player. They know how to play the game, but they can’t be good at it without practice. I think that’s what the course we have offers students.”

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