CLEMSON — Some of the nation’s brightest high school students were at Clemson University last week to take part in a training camp that decides which four will go to Taiwan to represent the United States in an international computer-programming contest.
While on campus, the 24 students lived in the dorms, participated in lectures on advanced computing techniques and sharpened their problem-solving skills by working through daily programming contests.
The training camp was part of the United States of America Computing Olympiad.
All the programming problems were cow-themed to add a sense of humor to the camp curriculum, but the students’ smarts are no joke.
“They’re immensely talented kids,” said Brian Dean, the Olympiad director and an associate professor of computer science at Clemson. “They routinely solve problems that would be challenging even for university-level graduate students.”
The training camp participants secured their spots by standing out in a series of six Internet competitions throughout the past academic year. They scored highest in a field of about 2,500.
The top four from training camp will go to Taipei, Taiwan, in July to represent the United States in the 26th annual International Olympiad in Informatics. It’s the world’s most prestigious programming contest at the high school level, Dean said.
The event was founded in 1989 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and is hosted by a different country each year.
Most of the students at Clemson’s camp are juniors and seniors in high school, but a few are as young as the eighth grade. Some have been to camp multiple times.
They come from throughout the country, and one is a U.S. citizen living abroad in China.
The most advanced students work through programming problems for as long as five hours a day, while first-time campers spend more time in classroom lectures.
When students practice competition problems, it’s not enough for their computer programs to work. The programs also have to run quickly.
“If you solve it the wrong way, it will take hours of computing time,” Dean said. “If you solve it the right way, it takes a millisecond. It’s all about knowing the right algorithm.”
Students who attend camp take part in a number of fun computing challenges beyond the standard camp curriculum.
Last summer, students computed the shortest route required to tour the 500 brightest stars in the sky, then visualized the result on the giant dome of Clemson’s on-campus planetarium.
This year they write programs to compete against each other in a strategy game with each player representing a farmer whose goal is to obtain as much milk as possible.
The cow theme goes back to the Olympiad’s origins at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, where it started in 1993.
Dean attended the training camp and was a member of the USA programming team as a student in 1994. He became a coach three years later.