MC's Computer Programming Team enjoying strong first year

December 22, 2003
Karen B. Eldridge, Director of News and Public Information
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

You kind of have to know something about computer programming to really appreciate the T-shirts that Maryville College Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dr. Barbara Plaut ordered for her computer programming team this fall.

On the front of the T-shirts is the team name, "MC++ Computer Geeks," chosen because it includes Maryville College's acronym and the programming language (C++) that students use in competition.

On the back are each member's numbers – combinations of binaries only – reflecting the 0 and 1 code that computers use.

Students on the team they say don't really mind the inevitable "computer geek" label. They wear it – and the shirts – proudly into competition. And as well they should. In its first year of existence, the team has made a strong showing already.

Competing at the 17 th Annual Southeastern Consortium for Computer Sciences in Small Colleges Conference at Georgia Perimeter College in Dunwoody, Ga., last month, the College's team placed eighth among 30 other college groups and was highest-finishing "rookie" team at the competition. Students made an impressive showing at a regional qualifying contest for the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)'s International Collegiate Programming Contest held in Cookeville in October, and this March, students will travel to Mercer University in Macon, Ga., for more competition against college-aged programmers.

Putting together a winning team

The team is made up of entirely computer science/business or computer science/mathematics majors at the College. They came together last January, after Plaut approached some of her best students and asked them if they would be interested in competing in the fall.

"Programming is so challenging and fun," the professor says. "I knew the practices and competitions would sharpen their [programming] skills, and they have gotten better at this. I can tell."

Meg Graham, Andrey Khomenko, Michael Andy King, Daniel Ledford, Jessica Minihan, Stevie Neifert, Sara O'Neal and Ben Peacock – five seniors, one junior and two sophomores – make up the College's team. Usually practicing and competing in groups of four, the students gather around two computers (one per team) to collectively work on different types of programming problems that each may take several minutes – maybe even an hour – to solve.

"Some problems require knowledge of algorithms and data structures, while some may be more mathematical," Plaut explains. "Ultimately, the students take the solutions to the problem and put it into computer code."

Practicing twice a week for two to three hours at each sitting, the students look over problems from prior contests, and Plaut goes over aspects of programming that younger teammates may not have studied yet in their classes at Maryville. And just like in competition, the teams watch the clock. Contests are decided by how many problems are correctly solved in a set number of hours. For the competition in Dunwoody, Ga., for instance, teams were given three hours to correctly answer six questions. In Cookeville, the challenge was six problems in five hours. Proposed solutions are given to a jury that judges whether or not the teams' solutions produce the right output for the jury input.

Just as in most competitions, strategy is required to win. Usually teams use one member, a "terminal man," to key in the code and debug it. Students know their strengths and weaknesses, so portions of problems may be divvied up and worked individually, with the members instructing the "TM" what to key in.

Gaining a competitive edge

Sara O'Neal, a senior computer science/mathematics major, is the regular TM for her team. Programming since the age of 12, the Copper Basin High School graduate was interested in joining Plaut's team because she knew working in groups would further her own skills.

And she's just as competitive about programming as she was on her high school softball team. To give herself and her teammates an added edge, she compiled a notebook of all programs and some common algorithms. She keeps two math books handy for reference.

"I've always been a competitive person," she explains, "but when I get to compete in something I'm studying, the rush is even better."

O'Neal hopes to go on to graduate school then join her brother's business, designing software applications and web components.

Michael Andy King, a Sevier County High School graduate and longtime programmer, joined the team in April, four months after the team's initial practice. Ultimately, he would like to create game-based programs and recognized the opportunity to increase his knowledge of the science through Plaut's team.

"You give people a new problem – that's only going to increase their knowledge of the programs," he says.

Plaut describes her students as extremely sharp, dedicated and goal-oriented. She also uses other adjectives that non-techies may not assign those oft-misunderstood "computer geeks."

"These are brave, enthusiastic students," she says. "And a lot of fun."