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Bethel Team Takes Top Minnesota Spot in Programming Contest

(From left to right) Annie Melling ’17, Ben Visness ’17, and Nadia Jacobson ’17 were the top-ranked Minnesota team at a recent Association for Computing Machinery Programming Contest.

A team of three Bethel seniors—Ben Visness ’17, Nadia Jacobson ’17, and Annie Melling ’17— recently placed sixth out of 231 teams at the 2016 Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) North Central North America Regional Programming Contest. The achievement was nearly enough to qualify the team to attend the World Finals for the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) in May 2017—and also secured their spot as the top programming team in Minnesota.

The contest on October 29 took place simultaneously at multiple sites throughout the North Central North America region. The self-named Overconfident Bethel Seniors (OBS) team competed at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities site, where they correctly answered six out of 12 problems. Unlike most strictly-mathematical competitions, the goal of the ICPC is not to solve equations. Rather, students are given a description of a problem and must create a computer program that can solve that problem regardless of what numbers the judges plug into it. Because the scenarios are so complex, few teams solve more than one or two throughout the five-hour allotted time span.

“This is a pretty simplified [example]…but let’s say that you were told you’re going to have a certain number of left shoes and a certain number of right shoes, and we want to know ‘how many unique pairs could we form from that?’” explains Department Chair and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Nathan Gossett. “If you knew that I had three left shoes and two right shoes, then we’d know that [the answer is] going to be six possible unique pairs. But since [students] don’t know the actual inputs that are being provided, they have to write a program that’s going to provide the correct answer regardless of what they’re presented with.”

Gossett has been the coach for the competition since Bethel first began participating in 2008, and he’s the reason the OBS team (originally the “Overconfident Bethel Sophomores”) banded together. During the start of their second year at Bethel, Gossett put the three students in a group and encouraged them to give the competition a try. He had warned that they would likely only answer one or two questions correctly, but maintained that the experience would benefit them in the long run—giving them an opportunity to improve their junior and senior years.

“We did reasonably well the first year,” reflects OBS team member Visness, saying they had surprised themselves by correctly answering three questions—only one fewer than that year’s team of Bethel seniors. “It’s a tough competition. It’s just brutal sometimes. All you get back is ‘WRONG ANSWER,’ and you don’t know why.”

This year included a team of two Bethel sophomores and one junior participating—and succeeding—in the competition. “It was a good experience,” Kirsten Tetzlaff ’19, one of the three team members, says. “I think it was good practice and it was interesting being a lower-level student, seeing different types of problems even though we didn’t necessarily know how to solve them.” The young competitors ranked in the top half of their region, which includes Minnesota, Wisconsin, Western Ontario, Manitoba, Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Tetzlaff and teammates Elise Courtemanche ’18 and Carrie Bell ’18 were also the only all-female team at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities competition site.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Deborah Thomas, who’s also involved with the contest, says she was excited to see Bethel leading in gender diversity. “In the whole site, there were nine women total, of whom six were from Bethel. Our best performing team had two women out of three. In a department that maybe graduates one or two [women] a year, this is a big achievement. I'm excited to get more women interested in the field and participating in competitions like this.”

Based on preliminarily listings, it seems the OBS team narrowly missed the cutoff to attend the world finals, though it will still be a number of months before the ICPC officially declares who will be attending. The convoluted judging process involves a certain number of “wildcard slots” allotted for each region. But regardless of whether the team advances, all three students agree that the experience has helped prepare them for the future—bolstering their resumes and equipping them to deal with complex problems or tricky interview questions down the road. For Melling, a math and math education major with a computer science minor, problem solving skills gained in the competition will be passed on to the next generation. “I can take [this] into my future as a teacher and hopefully either inspire or encourage students with that experience,” she says.

As for the next generation of Bethel students, the team has high hopes that Bethel’s Department of Math and Computer Science will continue to make a name for itself at the ICPC. “Don’t be afraid,” advises Jacobson, who says that even students without a computer science background can grow and succeed. “I ran my first program as a freshman at Bethel…and I think whatever team wants to [participate in the contest] has the potential to do it, because we have such a great professor here who’s organizing it.”

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