Kerrick Staley, senior in computer engineering, is part of an interdisciplinary team of students that will participate in the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) world finals in Warsaw, Poland, this spring.
Coached by Simanta Mitra, senior lecturer in computer science, Staley and teammates Bryce Sandlund, junior in computer science, and Devon Eilers, junior in pre-business, make up the Cy5 team. They took 2nd place at the ACM ICPC North Central North America regional competition in Lincoln, Nebraska, securing their place in the international competition in May.
Mitra has taken students to regional competitions for more than 10 years. During the competition, teams comprised of three students attempt to quickly and accurately solve 10 programming problems, such as building a program that will find the shortest path from one point to another on a map. The winning teams from each region go to the final competition.
“There are some really smart kids out here, and some of them are very serious about this competition,” Mitra said.
To prepare the teams, Mitra drills them weekly with practice problems ranging from beginner to advanced. He encourages the students to work together to come up with innovative solutions. Over time, the students begin to realize each other’s strengths and weakness, and they learn to prioritize accordingly.
For Staley’s team, however, practicing together wasn’t an option. From Cy5, only Sandlund had ever attended practices. Staley and Eilers joined this year’s competition at the last minute, replacing two students who dropped out unexpectedly. The group improvised throughout the competition, leaning on individual strengths as they managed advanced programming scenarios.
Mitra was pleasantly surprised with how well the impromptu team coordinated. “They had not been at practices, so I had no idea what to expect from them,” Mitra said.
He adds that Staley’s strong background in mathematics was likely a great boon to the team for navigating program algorithms.
Staley says he enjoyed tackling the problems, as well as traveling and connecting with like minds within Iowa State and the region during the competition.
With the team’s success, Staley and Sandlund have started attending practices regularly in preparation for the world finals. The other regional champion teams from the U.S. also practice together online on Saturdays and are organizing their own April competition in Chicago to prepare for the finals.
Staley chose to major in computer engineering to balance his interest in software engineering with a solid background in computer hardware. “As computers become increasingly integral to everyday life, opportunities for computer engineers are growing,” he said. “I like making something that is intelligent and can make life easier.”
He is also taking Chinese and looking forward to deeper involvement with the Chinese Culture club. He says he appreciates that Iowa State offers the language and additional opportunities to explore both cultures and technologies that will continue to influence the future.