Three Montana State University seniors - Saiichi Hashimoto, David Stevens and Nick Wills - in the computer science major of the College of Engineering brought home a fifth-place finish in regional competition of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) after competing at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colo., last fall.
The team had the top result out of 12 teams competing at the Fort Collins site, one of several in a region-wide competition that includes western Canada.
"We've had some top-10 finishes, but never a top-five," Professor John Paxton, chair of the Computer Science Department, said. "It's really quite exciting for this group to have done so well."
The typical ACM competition consists of 10 problems doled out to the three-person teams. Each team has one computer and five hours to work out the most efficient programming solution to the problems. Scores are awarded based on the number of solutions achieved, the time taken to solve them, and the efficiency of the solution.
The MSU squad solved five of 10 problems, with the region's top team solving nine.
Hashimoto said the MSU team was aided somewhat by the experience he had competing in the 2010 ACM regionals.
"That experience last year really helped us to come up with a little better approach, strategically, to the competition this time," he said.
The questions themselves can be fairly esoteric, even to students learning the ins and outs of computer programming, Paxton said.
"The problems range in difficulty from the fairly straight-forward to the extremely difficult," Paxton said.
The degree of difficulty wasn't something that weighed too heavily on the team, Wills said.
"We went into this without putting a whole lot of pressure on ourselves," Stevens added. "We figured we would do pretty well and have fun doing it."
"I just think of them as bunch of puzzles you work to solve and, in that way, they're really pretty entertaining," he added. "And even though they aren't something you're likely to see in real life they are a good exercise in how you approach problems you might see when you're programming."
That kind of learning is the key, said Paxton.
"In general it's a very good way for students to receive feedback in a very practical sense on how their problem solving skills are developing," Paxton said. "And all the skills that go into solving these kinds of problems, such as creativity and teamwork, these are all things that cross over very well into the work environment."
In addition, putting their skills on display in a sponsored event, often gives students an inroad to landing internships with those companies that are helping put the competition together, Paxton said.
"We've seen that participating in these competitions often leads to summer internships with the sponsors," Paxton said.
The ACM events -- which begin each school year with a local competition hosted at MSU -- are just one of the opportunities available to the approximately 200 students working toward computer science degrees on the Bozeman campus, Paxton said.
With a job placement rate that is the highest among any undergraduate discipline, in addition to an average starting salary that ranks second, Paxton said enrollment in the major has been growing in recent years.
Paxton said students are given a couple of options for which track they can take toward their degree: a professional option that is a more technically geared and hews closer to pure software development; and an interdisciplinary option, which still features software development but replaces some of the technical electives with a minor in some other discipline and emphasizes a capstone project relating the world of computing to that minor.
"I think that is a really important thing to offer these days," Paxton said. "Because we are moving in a direction where many of the the jobs require developing software solutions to pressing societal problems that cross disciplinary boundaries."
As for the next goal on the horizon for MSU's ACM competitors, Paxton said he'd like to see a Bobcat squad win the region and earn a berth in the world championship, usually hosted in a major city in Europe, Asia or North America.
"My dream is that one day one of our teams will compete in the world finals," Paxton said.
John Paxton, email@example.com or (406) 994-4780