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MIT programming team headed to world finals

Two three-member teams of student computer programmers took first and second place in the Association for Computing Machinery's northeast regional contest last month, and the top team will compete in the world finals in Nashville in March.

The regional competition in Oswego, NY, featured 45 teams from universities in New England, upstate New York and eastern Canada. Team members, who had to be undergraduates or first- or second-year graduate students, had five hours to solve seven programming problems.

Problems faced by contestants included writing a program to compute income taxes, as well as a graphics program that outputs the projection of a 3-D image onto a two-dimensional surface. Teams also had to produce paper printouts of their solutions. The contest thus required participants to "understand a word problem, print it out so you can explain it to someone else, and of course solve it in between," said Tom Leighton, professor of mathematics and one of MIT coaches. "It tests all the features of programming ability that you can in a short test."

Team cooperation was also a must, since each team was allotted only a single workstation, Professor Leighton added. The MIT students worked in the C language in a UNIX coding environment.

The first-place team from MIT consisted of Theodore Tonchev and Peter Ivanov, a junior and senior respectively in computer science and engineering, and Emanuel Todorov, a graduate student in brain and cognitive sciences. Members of the other MIT team were Ross Lippert, a graduate student in mathematics, freshman Brian Dean, and Tichomir Tenev, a junior in computer science and engineering. Several of the six are from Bulgaria and in fact were on a Bulgarian national informatics team as high school students, Professor Leighton noted.

The top three teams-two from MIT and one from Harvard-managed to complete all seven tasks in the five-hour period. In cases like this where there is a tie, winners are chosen on the basis of how much total time the members of each team took. The second-place MIT team was 20 minutes behind the first-place group, while the third-place team from Harvard University was three hours behind the number-two group.

Normally, the top two regional teams go on to the world finals, but the contest stipulates that each university may send only one group, so only the Tonchev-Ivanov-Todorov team will go to Nashville. The three also competed in the regional contest last year, finishing second and going to the world finals, where the top five winners receive scholarships from contest sponsor Microsoft Corp. Although the MIT group did not reach that level last year, "I expect them to do a lot better this year with the experience they had from last year," Professor Leighton said.

Others who helped the teams prepare for the contest were coach Bonnie Berger, assistant professor of mathematics, and team manager David Wilson, a graduate student in mathematics. The Laboratory for Computer Science sponsored the students.

A version of this article appeared in the December 7, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 39, Number 14).

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