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Chris Hansen '07Chris Hansen '07

Brains Over Brawn in Willamette Competition

Chris Hansen '07 remembers when he came to campus for Willamette's Computer Programming Contest, held each year for high schoolers in Oregon. Lunch was inhaled as the pace picked up and the minutes ticked down in the five-hour contest.

This year, as a computer science student at Willamette, Hansen and his fellow students served as judges. "I like being on the other side," he says. "There's a frantic amount of energy in the room, with everyone moving around and students running to the judges. If they have the wrong answer they have to go back and start over.

"It's very empowering to win. The winning team gets serious bragging rights."

Computer Science Professor Fritz Ruehr is the annual director of the contest, now in its 20th year. More than 50 high schools from Oregon have competed for the take-home prize--a trophy to put in the display case alongside the football and basketball trophies.

Four-member teams from each participating school bring their preferred computer language software and one computer. By allowing only one computer for each team, the contest mandates collaboration among the students. Teams tackle more than a dozen computer programming problems and points are given not only for correct solutions, but for style and flexibility.

"You have to be able to understand the problem well enough to explain it to a computer," Ruehr says. "A computer has no intuition or common sense. A two-year-old child has more understanding."

Ruehr tries to include at least two problems that even novices can solve, so that every team can feel good about its participation, but the top teams are challenged with problems appropriate for advanced college students. "It's pure puzzle, pure thinking," Ruehr says.

Some years there are problems no team can solve, and one year a team solved all 14 problems in four hours, an unprecedented feat. They were packing up their computer when their high school coach came running into the room saying, "What are you doing?"

"There's an overt attempt on the part of the contest organizers to provide trophies that look like sports trophies," Ruehr says. "We want to have these kids be able to bring these things home and put them in the high school trophy case and get recognition for intelligence."

"High schoolers often value athletic prowess and beauty over intelligence," Ruehr says. "Before, 'being geeky' was a put down, but with the Internet boom, academic prowess and technical skills have become respectable, in the way that athleticism has always been."

The new cultural shift is reflected in the TV show "Beauty and the Geek." Willamette graduate Eric Chase '04 recently appeared on the show, wooed by three beautiful women. It's unfortunate, Ruehr says, that the show neglects to portray women as having technical skills too.

Ruehr volunteers one-on-one with seniors in the Salem-Keizer School District, mentoring teens that have computer science aspirations.

The annual Willamette Computer Programming Contest is sponsored by Willamette University and the Software Association of Oregon Foundation in an effort to encourage students to develop computer science skills.