Vanderbilt computer science team places first in regional round of IBM’s Battle of the Brains

The Vanderbilt University School of Engineering Gold Team placed first in a regional round of the 34th annual Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Contest Oct. 24, making it the fifth straight year a Vanderbilt computer science team has taken top honors in a regional round.

The Gold Team competed with 23 collegiate teams from 10 other colleges and universities in Tennessee and Alabama at Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville in a five-hour contest to solve nine real-world computer programming problems. Teams are ranked according to most problems solved and the time consumed for each problem solved.

“We solved our first problem in the first 10 minutes of the contest,” said Kyle Prete, a senior computer science and math major from Mandeville, La. “We solved our fifth problem just four minutes before the end of competition. That’s what won it for us.”

Only Vanderbilt’s Gold Team and the Tennessee Tech 1 Team solved five problems in five hours. The Gold Team solved its problems in less time, pushing Tennessee Tech to second place.

Prete and the two other Gold Team members – computer engineering senior Adam Albright of Chattanooga and first-year computer science graduate student Andrew Pitman of Nashville – each took three of the nine problems. On the easier ones, they worked alone. “On the harder ones, we put our heads together,” Albright said.

The deadlines are so grueling and the problems so complex that tackling them equals completing a semester’s worth of computer programming in one afternoon.

It’s no wonder sponsor IBM calls it the “Battle of the Brains” and Network World calls it a smack-down for smart people.

“The real challenge is that each team has only one workstation. Three people have only one computer to solve up to nine problems in five hours,” said Pitman. He and Prete have competed in the ACM contest before.

Computer science professor Larry Dowdy said members of the team, which came together in just a few weeks, each has unique strengths. “About a month before the contest we discovered the date had changed and it fell during fall break. Kyle pulled the team together,” said Dowdy, who serves as the team’s coach.

Other regional rounds were conducted simultaneously at eight locations in Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky. Those nine events comprise the ACM Mid-Central USA Programming Contest.

Together, 148 teams from 64 schools competed. In the Mid-Central final standings, Vanderbilt ranked 24th.  The top three teams are University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign ‘Bardeen,’ University of Chicago ‘Works in Theory,’ and University of Kentucky ‘UK-U.’

The overall competition involves students from 90 countries and culminates with the 2010 World Finals to be held Feb. 1-6 in Harbin, China.