Programming may not be the most glamorous of computer science pursuits, but that’s where the heavy lifting occurs — and when you put 80 students in a room and give them three hours to answer a handful of programming problems, a unique and fun learning environment emerges.
It’s all about practice and hard work, says Patrick Madden, associate professor of computer science in the Watson School and advisor to the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM) student group that holds competitions each semester. “The students who excel are the ones who buckle down and work at it,” he says.
Some problems are based on number theory or geometry, while others involve advanced mathematics. “You want to have questions that everyone can do and some that not even the most talented students can get,” explains Tyler Stachecki ’11.
“Learning doesn’t have to be boring or stressful,” Stachecki adds. “At our competitions you’ll see people talking and enjoying themselves. Then they’re frantically working and getting frustrated. And laughing when they figure a problem out.”
According to Madden, the skills to be competitive — problem solving, math, composure and precision — are the same needed to be a successful computer scientist. And industry leaders recognize this. Binghamton students who do well in ACM competitions are being scouted and recruited by industry giants including Bloomberg, Google, IBM and Microsoft.
“Companies are looking for superstars. Everyone in the stack of résumés is going to have a good GPA,” Madden says. “These competitions are a great way to set yourself apart. You’re either the fastest or you’re not, and that can help a company focus its recruiting efforts.”
Binghamton University’s ACM student chapter has been sponsored by Bloomberg for several years. “We attend competitions each semester and then hold on-campus interviews,” explains Alex Jaspersen ’10, who was himself recruited by Bloomberg. “It gives us the opportunity to spread the word about Bloomberg and chat with motivated students about potential career opportunities.” In return the club gets much-needed funding. “Having funds to send 10, 15, even 20 students to a competition is a big deal,” Madden says.
Campus competitions are individual, but regional and national competitions require teamwork. “As with a job, they have to be able to listen, provide useful feedback and be able to share resources,” Madden says, adding that there is strategy in choosing which three students make up a team. “Good coders have a little ego, but they also know what they’re good at and can admit when they don’t know something.”
Spring project brings clean water home
Industrial and systems engineering graduate Erika Rollins ’11 was born and raised in Rio Hondo, a small community of about 100 people in San Marcos Ocotepeque, Honduras. The town’s primary source of income comes from harvesting coffee beans. There’s a church and a one-room schoolhouse, and only two years ago they got electricity.
When it came time to pick a senior design project, Rollins, Adam Noel, Coralie Brutus and Meange Adeclat (all '11 industrial and systems engineering), and Siobhan Alban and Roger Wan (both '11 mechanical engineering), chose to address the inadequate water system in Rollins' hometown.
“Pipes break all the time and they’ll leak for weeks,” Noel says. “There are no procedures to fix them.”
“When we started this project back in October, we started from zero,” Rollins says. With nothing more than a 40-page overview that talked more about agriculture and land use than water, they started talking with community members and members of the Ecological Association of San Marcos Ocotepeque.
The team traveled to Honduras in December with an initial written proposal. They saw firsthand the biggest culprit: a system of pipes that wasn’t constructed or buried properly. “There are 90-degree elbows set at 70 degrees and a lot of electrical tape,” Noel says. And some pipes are exposed — one lies just a foot from the road and has been damaged by the weight of cars. With these issues come concerns of contamination and E. coli, which is potentially lethal to 67 percent of the town’s residents who are children under the age of 18.
The trip also brought a design requirement to light. Given the history of the community and the locals’ knowledge of other water Essential Elements systems, they believe that a “good” water system must include a tank — something the group had discussed but did not consider a necessity.
On both sides of the globe, the team has found guidance from engineers and professors. In Honduras, a Peace Corps civil engineer has donated his time and experience to take measurements. In Binghamton, the students have worked with Computer Science Professor Yu David Liu, Industrial and Systems Engineering Associate Professor Sarah Lam on modeling and with their advisor, Raymond Barnes, PhD '05, to secure and learn a continuous modeling software that’s not part of their typical education.
In April, Rollins, Brutus and Noel returned to Honduras to finalize crews and plans before the group returned with additional volunteers after Commencement, to kick off the build. While the project probably won't be completed during their final two-week trip, they hope to leave with the community well underway and fully prepared to finish on their own.
“Often, projects there aren’t followed through to completion,” Noel says. “Our goal is to make sure that it gets done properly, completely, on time and on budget.”
What began as a summer internship for mechanical engineering senior Corey Juliano '11 blossomed into three senior design projects for the Magic Paintbrush Project. "I wanted to help out as much as possible. Most people don't have any idea what it's like for a family with a physically disabled individual to try to do any fun activities," Juliano says. Read more here.