Brainy Battle: Students Compete in the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest

A couple of weeks before Halloween, three students from Polytechnic Institute of NYU faced frightening circumstances: the regional round of the ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) or the Battle of the Brains, as it’s sometimes called. Held at Rutgers University this year, the event pitted student teams of three against one another in a timed, five-hour competition. Each group was given two computers and nine programming problems to solve in any order using Java, C/C++, or Ada, a computer language used predominantly by government agencies.

A scary prospect for the average person, but for juniors Dmitriy Gromov and Aleksandr Sinelnikov, as well as senior Doreen Yagnatinsky, the contest trod familiar ground.  Both juniors had participated twice already, and it was Yagnatinsky’s fourth consecutive year attending. “It’s like a yearly tradition,” she said.

Unprecedented, however, was the group’s standing at the end of the tournament: 11th out of 47 teams. The ranking may seem unremarkable, but a closer look reveals that just two universities (Princeton and Yale) produced six of the top ten teams. Teams from Stony Brook, Columbia, and Cornell universities took the remaining four slots, and of the five schools, just three had teams composed only of undergraduates. NYU-Poly entered the competition with only one team of three undergraduates. When viewed through that lens, NYU-Poly’s accomplishment is more impressive.

But John Sterling, associate industrial professor of computer science and engineering, who steers NYU-Poly to the ACM ICPC every year, takes the compliment lightly. “The point is to come home having enjoyed what you’ve done,” he says.

A sense of satisfaction does emanate from the team. Interviewed after the competition, Sinelnikov said, “Every time one of these problems brings up something we don’t know how to do, we end up learning some kind of new algorithm to solve it, and that helps in every aspect.”

“It’s a great opportunity to learn for minimal costs,” he continued. “It’s actually fun.”

His attitude sounds like the description Sterling gives about those who participate in the contest. “The students who get involved in this find a real strong appeal to problem-solving, to pushing themselves,” he says. “I have several times been impressed that they find solutions to problems that elude me.”

They also show initiative, carving three hours each week out of their schedule to tackle practice problems with other students. Guided by Professor Sterling, they gather throughout the academic year and, when the students feel like it, all summer long. The meet-ups sound time-intensive, but neither Gromov nor Sinelnikov describes them that way. “It’s only a few hours a week,” shrugs Sinelnikov, with Gromov interjecting, “It’s not like you’re doing homework every day.”

“We do a lot of these problems just for fun,” he adds. “It feels good to do something like this.”

Sinelnikov notes that the contest, which is sponsored by IBM, also “helps with opportunities. There are internships at IBM that look for people who have competed,” he says.

He and Gromov say they’re likely to participate in the contest again next year, but 2010 was the last for Yagnatinsky. Asked if she’ll miss it, the senior nods quietly. “I highly recommend it,” she says. “I don’t understand how you can be a computer science major and not be interested in a programming competition.”

To find out more about joining the NYU-Poly team, contact John Sterling at jsterling@poly.edu.