Computer Science Assistant Professor John Dickerson (B.S. ’08, computer science; B.S. ’08, mathematics) was a contestant in 2003 and 2004 and now directs the contest.
The contest draws some of the brightest young minds in computer science to College Park. This year, 132 students from 33 high schools in Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., will have three hours to solve eight programming problems.
The contest theme this year is “Incredibles 2.” Last year, with a “Jurassic Park” theme, one problem asked contestants to write a program to keep track of dinosaur eggs in an incubator.
“The first one or two questions are very easy, but the difficulty ramps up quickly,” said the contest’s director, John Dickerson (B.S. ’08, computer science; B.S. ’08, mathematics), an assistant professor of computer science at UMD. “In fact, I’m not convinced that I could solve all of the questions in the allotted time.”
Although Dickerson will give out the questions this year, he was once on the receiving end: he participated in the contest in 2003 and 2004 as a student at Sherwood High School in Rockville, Maryland. Although his team did not win, Dickerson said that the contest was a great bonding experience with his teammates and opened his eyes to a different style of problem solving in computer science.
The biggest lesson Dickerson learned as a contestant is that there is always a different or better solution to any programming problem. He also learned to watch out for unexpected situations that could cause his programs to work incorrectly.
“Many times, a potential solution may seem completely correct to a contestant, but will break in just one or two tricky cases,” Dickerson said. “That’s good training for computer programming in the real world.”
Students from the same school compete in teams of up to four members. Teams receive scores based on how many problems they solve correctly, how much time they took to solve the problems and how many wrong answers they submit.
The six teams with the highest stores, as well as the first teams to solve any of the eight problems, receive prizes. In addition, the team that improves the most from the previous year receives the Gannon Prize, awarded in memory of John Gannon (1948–1999), a former professor and chair of UMD’s Department of Computer Science who was an enthusiastic supporter of the contest.
The competition also helps the university build relationships with talented students from local high schools. Every year, Dickerson works with William Gasarch, a professor of computer science at UMD, to pair 30 to 40 students with UMD faculty mentors each year; Dickerson oftens discovers promising students at the contest.
“There are an increasing number of hackathons and other programming competitions for these students to participate in,” Dickerson said. “It’s important for Maryland to be part of that ecosystem.”
As a high schooler, Dickerson enjoyed working on the problems—banging his head against the wall, as he put it—until he came up with a correct solution.
Now, as director, he enjoys watching the high schoolers go through the entire contest.
“I love seeing teams go from nervous to super intense while they solve problems and then relaxed while we review the problems over pizza,” Dickerson said. “It’s really rewarding when I see that everyone had a good time, even if they didn’t solve any problems.”
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About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 9,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college’s 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $175 million.