Canadian schools miss medals at contest

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — For the first time at the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), the University of Waterloo can’t claim to be the top Canadian school.

Instead that honour will go to the University of Toronto, which finished Wednesday 46th overall and just ahead of Waterloo in 53rd place out of 120 teams.

Canadian schools missed out on a medal, awarded to the top 12 teams at the annual contest. The University of Calgary, University of Lethbridge, University of Manitoba and the University of British Columbia were all contestants in the world finals.

The Toronto team finished about where it expected, according to team coach Wesley May. “I was expecting 30th to 50th place-wise,” he said.
(The University of Toronto team. Photo by Brian Jackson for ITWC)
 
The Association of Computing Machinery’s ICPC is the world’s oldest and most popular computer programming contest. Sponsored by IBM Corp. since 1997, it is also known as “Battle of the Brains” and used as a talent recruitment tool by Big Blue.
 
Teams of three students spend five hours solving a set of 11 problems. The problems are highly complicated and usually require knowledge of mathematical algorithms to solve. This year, the winning team solved 10 out of 11 problems.
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St. Petersburg National Research University of Information Technologies Mechanics and Optics (ITMO) made the most of its home field advantage to win first place in the competition for the second year in a row. The team got out to an early start and was in the top three spots throughout the competition.

“The young generation, they like to compete,” says Nikolai Toivonen, vice-rector of strategic development at the University ITMO. “This is part of university culture, to train students to be hard workers, because they should be responsible for their lives. This is very important to us.”

University ITMO narrowly beat out Shanghai Jiao Tong University and The University of Tokyo. It also topped cross-town rival St. Petersburg State University. Moscow University also finished in the top 10, following the rise of Russian universities in the rankings at the ICPC world finals. A trend that is owed in part to Russian youth seeing computer programming as a ticket to prosperity, according to Toivonen.

“Right now in Russia, programming is a competition. The kids like it, they want to compete, they want to be the best,” he says. “It’s a challenge for us as a university to create more opportunities for them.”

The University of Waterloo has been one of the most successful teams in the history of the ICPC. It is the only team to visit every world finals since 1997, alongside the University of Warsaw, last year’s host and runner-up. It won the competition twice, most recently in 1999 – the last time a North American team walked away as champions. At last year’s World Finals, Waterloo won a bronze medal for its ninth-place finish.

The University of Toronto team also looked like a medal hopeful this year. It won first place in a March contest hosted by the University of Chicago for the North American teams visiting the ICPC world finals. There, it beat out Stanford University and Carnegie Mellon University. But competing against teams from eastern Europe is a different matter altogether, according to May.

“North American schools just don’t have the same sort of development programs” as Russia, he says. “The winning team got their picture taken last year with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, so clearly it means something to this country.”

Putin did invite the 2012 University ITMO team to attend the annual meeting of the Russian Academy of Science, where he congratulated the team on their victory in a speech.

The ICPC World Finals are the culmination of a months-long process involving regional competitions in 85 countries around the globe, attracting more than 30,000 student contestants. The contest serves as a recruiting tool for IBM Corp., who makes a point of extending job offers to at least the gold medal winners.

Russia will be the host country again for the 2014 world finals. Ural State University will be the host school in Yekaterinburg, Russia.

(Brian Jackson is editor of our sister publication, ITBusiness.ca)



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