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UMD Computer Team Wins Regionals, On To World Finals

December 12, 2012

Ellen Ternes, 301-318-4208

competitionCOLLEGE PARK, Md. - The competition was as fierce as an NCAA playoff, but the odds of winning were a lot higher -- 171 student teams, all packed into one big room at Radford University, competing in the Mid-Atlantic regional ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM ICPC) in November.


At the end of the five-hour programming marathon, a University of Maryland team took first place, a win that will send them to the World Finals in St. Petersburg, Russia in June, 2013. Two other Maryland teams finished seventh and ninth.


“It’s like the Olympics for student programmers,” says Maryland’s team coach Mohammad Hajiaghayi, Associate Professor of Computer Science.


“This firmly establishes Maryland’s computer science program as one of the top programs in the Mid-Atlantic region,” says Samir Khuller, professor and chair of Maryland’s department of Computer Science.  


While there aren’t dramatic dunks to wow the crowd, the ACM ICPC isn’t for the faint of heart. Teams of three sit elbow to elbow around computer monitors, all trying to figure out the same eight or nine programming problems. They tackle one problem at a time, working against the clock and each other, to correctly solve as many as they can.


“The idea is to write a program for the problems the way you would in the real world, to help someone,” says Hajiaghayi. An analogy, he says, would be to write a program for a UPS truck to drive the most efficient delivery route and use the least gas. “You have to write the code correctly, as soon as you can. Your program should find the best solution on all inputs. 


“Teamwork is the most important part of the competition,” says Hajiaghayi, who competed as a graduate student. “You have to work together to win.”


Teams get credit only for the problems they solve correctly, and they get time penalties for mistakes – 20 minutes for each incorrect submission.   Like a marathon runner, the more time on the final score, the lower the team finishes.


To add to the pressure, a central scoreboard shows everyone’s standings during the first four hours, with teams changing leads throughout the competition. During the final hour, however, scores aren’t updated, so teams don’t know how they finished until the results are announced.


That last hour was tense for the first place Terp team. They had made some mistakes on their final problem, says team member Shangfu Peng, “and we were afraid that other teams would solve one more problem in the last a few minutes.”


UMD teamsMaryland’s winning team, Peng, Ang Li and Hossein Esfandiari, will compete against teams from around the world in the St. Petersburg World Finals. “I am looking forward to communicating with other excellent teams from different universities and different countries,” says Peng.


The Maryland team of Milad Gholami, Melika Abolhassani and Anirudh Bandi finished the regional competition in seventh place.  Finishing ninth were the UMD team of Mandeep Bedi, Luke Valenta, and David Karesh.