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King Arthur's Quest: Medaling at the computer science olympiad

Competing against about 250 other students, you have five hours, a computer and three informatics-also known as computer science-problems to solve; does the pressure get to you? Not if you are freshman David Arthur, who recently placed second in the 12th International Olympiad in Informatics.

The competition was held Sept. 23-30 in Beijing, China. The olympiad is an international competition for high school students, and each participating country may send four contestants. Although Arthur is now a first-year college student, he qualified while he was still a high school student in Canada.

"You go with three other team members, but it is an individual contest," Arthur said. "This contest is a lot bigger in Canada [than in the United States], so we do a lot of preliminary contests. Basically, because I got to go, it means I was one of the top four students in computer programming in Canada."

He proved this to be true when he scored 690 out of a possible 700 points in the competition, tying for second place and winning a gold medal and a laptop computer.

Arthur's feat did not surprise his coach, Barry Ferguson, who is a professor of mathematics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. "David is an excellent student, thinker and problem-solver," Ferguson wrote in an e-mail. "He is an outstanding mathematics and computing student."

Currently, Arthur is taking a problem-solving computer science seminar taught by Duke Professor of Computer Science Owen Astrachan that concentrates specifically on preparation for informatics contests. "What makes [Arthur] good?... He's just really good," Astrachan said. "He's done a lot, so he's seen a lot of problems."

The idea behind the competition is to give students a problem and have them create a program that works to solve the problem or complete a specific task. Some of Arthur's computer science professors at Duke said students must be able to go beyond the surface of the problem in order to create a successful solution in contests such as these.

"You have to see through the question and understand it," said assistant professor Lars Arge, who teaches Arthur in a graduate-level computer science class. "I think the competitions... define something we also try to teach in computer science; you're presented with this problem and [must decide] what is it I really need to solve."

The competitions also provide students with a taste of the real-world applications of computer programming.

"They get practice thinking and realize it in a concrete way," Astrachan said.

There is a two-fold approach to these competitions, which rely heavily on fast-paced thinking skills. The students must be able to thoroughly understand the problem and then come up with a programming solution, and they must be able to do this quickly and under pressure.

"Part of this is ability and part of it is experience," Astrachan said. "Some people are good at the theoretical side of the contest, and others are good at the programming, and [Arthur] is good at both."

By traveling to the olympiad in a different country each year, students learn not only about programming but about different cultures and nations.

"The benefit from the competition comes in making connections with gifted students from round the world who have similar interests and abilities," Ferguson wrote. "The learning comes in during discussions of the problems, and techniques to solve them, with teammates, competitors from other nations and with the teachers/faculty members who lead the teams."

Gifted students like Arthur enter these competitions because they enjoy both the programming and the overall experience.

"I'm not sure you learn specific things... it's just fun to go to," Arthur said.


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