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2010 November 14

TopCoder contests to spark CS interest

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eSchool News recently reported on a new DARPA-funded project to try to entice students in grades 6–12 into STEM-related fields, particularly computer science.  In particular, they are funding TopCoder to create new competitions for middle school and high school. TopCoder reports a $5.57-million-dollar contract “for the development of a new Internet-based platform for competitions and educational resources that will focus on realizing computer science, science, technology, engineering and math (CS-STEM)-focused goals for middle and high school students in the U.S. and beyond.”  They claim the goals as including

To introduce and actively engage grade school students to a host of interesting and fun age-specific competitions will offer collaborative activities, puzzles and games, webisodes and workshops in all applications of critical thinking in the computer science field.

They plan to do the development using their current base of competitive programmers, and “An early component will be an extension of the TopCoder High School tournament platform.”

The current contest has bimonthly matches, and coding is limited to Java, C++, C# or VB.Net. (No Python, Scheme, Haskell, or Squeak.) The web site for the Nov 13 match says

The match will feature a mixed programming language format. For each individual problem, the coder will have the option of using either Java, C++, Microsoft® Visual C#® .NET or Microsoft® Visual Basic® .NET to code the solution. Syntactical knowledge of all four languages will be helpful during the challenge phase of each round of competition.

These seem to be speed-programming contests [from the official rules]:

Each online tournament round consists of three phases: the coding phase, challenge phase, and the testing phase.

  1. The Coding Phase is a timed event where all contestants are presented with the same three questions representing three levels of complexity and, accordingly, three levels of point earnings potential. Points for a problem are awarded upon submission of any solution that successfully compiles.
  2. The Challenge Phase is a timed event wherein each competitor has a chance to challenge the functionality of other competitors’ code. A successful challenge will award 50 points to the challenger, and any points gained by the submitter for the problem will be lost. Unsuccessful challenges will cost the challenger 25 points as a penalty, applied to their total score in that round of competition.
  3. The Automated Testing Phase is applied to all submitted code that has not already been successfully challenged. If TopCoder finds code that is flawed, the author of that code submission will lose all of the points they earned for that code submission. The automated tester will apply a set of inputs, expecting the output from the code submission to be correct. If the output from a coder’s submission does not match the expected output, the submission is considered flawed. The same set of input/output test cases will be applied to all code submissions for a given problem.

I have no idea how long the contests last, but speed programming is a rather specialized skill, even among good programmers. I hope that TopCoder widens their ideas about what is appropriate for high school competitions, so that I can encourage my son to participate.  The current contests are not a good match to his skills, which involve other programming languages (Python, C, Scheme, Scratch, … ) and design of larger projects.

Mark Guzdial discussed the DARPA-TopCoder effort, wondering if middle-school and high-school contests would draw more students into computer science or increase the diversity of students attracted.  He wonders in general if contests in any field are effective.  Do science fairs draw more students into science?  Do art contests draw more students into art schools and careers?

One possibility is that contests don’t attract more students to the field, but simply reward those who are already attracted. This seems to be the case for the many math competitions that are out there: they don’t seem to make students love math, but they offer incentives for those who do love math to do more of it than the normal school curriculum provides.  There are several math summer camps (like the one I visited this summer) to prepare students for the contests, and these camps do provide a pool of well-educated math students, many of whom chose to enter math and math-intensive fields in college.  Although many of them may have chosen math-related fields without the contests, they are much less likely to have pursued the extra education that primed them to do well in those fields.

Science fairs also don’t motivate high-school students to love science, but they create a framework for students to get mentors and do large projects that are not provided for in the standard high-school curriculum.  Without the science fairs, even fewer students would consider doing such time-consuming, intensive projects, and it would be much harder for them to find mentors to work with.

The biggest problem I see with high-school competitions like TopCoder’s is that very few high schools are providing even minimal computer science education (my son’s has none, for example), so that there is no base to build the contest on top of.  It would be like having contests in ancient Greek grammar: with no one studying the material needed to make the contest meaningful, there is not much point to having a contest.

DARPA seems to be following the model they used for autonomous vehicle research—rather than spending the money to build the infrastructure and do the needed research, they are hoping that the competition will inspire others to spend the money and do the hard work in the hopes of gaining glory.  This approach (somewhat surprisingly) worked for autonomous vehicles, but I think that the results are less certain for high school computer science—the teachers who need to do the training for the competitors generally lack the skills and the motivation to do so.  I’m not sure that the problem is that students don’t want to go into computer science, but that they have no exposure to the field and no way to learn anything about it in school.

1 Comment »

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    Comment by Mariel — 2010 November 15 @ 07:49 | Reply

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