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Gaining an Edge

by Black Issues

Gaining an Edge
Programming contest exposes HBCU students to high-level competitionAs a senior computer science major at Spelman College, Kafayat Lawal knows that the demand for information technology professionals has seen its ups and downs over the past few years. Since participating with the Spelman computer programming team in competitions for the last three years, Lawal believes that the experience has added to her credibility as a job seeker in a market that has tightened since the height of the technology boom in the late 1990s.
“It’s definitely been a learning experience for me,” she says.
Lawal is part of a small group of students at historically Black colleges and universities who have tested their programming expertise at the regional competitions of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC). This past fall, teams from Spelman, Morehouse College, Tuskegee University, Morgan State University, Hampton University, Winston Salem State University, North Carolina A&T State University and Howard University tested their abilities to quickly devise creative computer program solutions in competition with other colleges.
“This is the world’s premier university competition in the computing sciences and engineering. Endorsed by ACM, hosted by the world’s universities and fueled by IBM’s sponsorship, the ICPC challenge has been extended to tens of thousands of top students and faculty mentors worldwide,” says Dr. Bill Poucher, the ICPC executive director and a Baylor University professor.
For 28 years, the contest has attracted thousands of gifted student programmers in what is the largest competition of its kind. Last fall, regional competitions drew teams from more than 1,300 universities from 68 countries. In late March, 72 teams will be competing at the 2004 world finals, to be held in Prague, the Czech Republic.
With the IBM corporation as the sole corporate sponsor since 1997, the ACM ICPC exposes students to Linux and Eclipse, which are IBM-supported open source software platforms and tools, according to contest officials. During competitions, the students, working in three-person teams, use their programming skills over several hours in a contest of logic, strategy and mental endurance to solve complex problems using software development tools. The winning team at the world finals takes home IBM ThinkPad laptop computers, software, scholarships and a trophy.
“It’s critical for us to get a look at the very best talent,” says Margaret Ashida, the director of IBM corporate university relations, of IBM’s sponsorship.
Although the ICPC is not seen primarily as a recruiting tool for IBM, it enables top students to get “international recognition” for their achievement as well as exposing them to IBM products and officials, according to Ashida. Through the contest, students develop skills they can expect to use in the real world, contest officials say.
Ashida says that for minority-serving institutions, such as HBCUs, the ICPC represents a venue at which their participation can be showcased and serve to inspire other minority students. IBM officials say they are encouraging the entry and participation of HBCUs in the ICPC.
James Hale, a faculty adviser to the Spelman team, says there’s an enthusiastic group of students among the school’s computer science majors who come out to qualify for the programming team. “We’ve never had a problem getting students interested in the programming competition,” says Hale, who has taken Spelman teams to ICPC regionals over the past three years.
Hale notes that typically two or three three-person teams have been going to the competitions in recent years from Spelman. Accompanying a three-person team is a fourth student who’s deemed an alternate. If a team member should fall sick or suddenly not be able to compete, the alternate will fill the slot.
Among 84 teams competing in the southeast regionals, all three Spelman teams earned honorable mention recognition for their performance. Morehouse and Tuskegee also fielded teams in the southeast regionals this past fall. Of the 43 school teams whose performance earned them a numerical ranking, a Morehouse team captured a 33rd-place ranking in the competition. 
Hale says it’s going to take more frequent programming workouts during the spring semester to help boost the performance of Spelman teams in the future. “We haven’t really been doing a lot of practices,” he notes.
Bob Gault, a computer programming team faculty adviser at Howard University, says it has taken some effort to recruit students onto the Howard team over the past several years, but believes the competition experience has spurred increased student initiative in team organizing. He adds that a Howard chapter of ACM has recently formed and the visibility of the chapter should stimulate greater student interest.
“Having the chapter on campus seems to carry some weight among the students. It gives them the sense that their activities are connected to what the industry values,” Gault says. 



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