Brains Over Brawn in Willamette Contest

This March high school teams from around Oregon will converge at Willamette University for the 20th annual Willamette Computer Programming Contest. Four-member teams from each participating school are asked to 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 may also bring a printer. About 50 schools have competed during the past 20 years.

More than a dozen problems will be distributed to student teams Saturday, March 4, at 10 a.m.

"Points are given not only for correct solutions, but for style and flexibility," said Fritz Ruehr, chair of Willamette's computer science department and director of the contest.

"We try 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," Ruehr said.

Some years there are problems no team can solve, and one year a team solved all 14 problems in four hours. Willamette students act as judges.

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

"High school culture usually values athletic prowess and beauty over intelligence. Before, 'being geeky' was a put down or a negative, but with the Internet boom, academic prowess and technical skills have become more respectable, in the way that athleticism has always been."

The cultural shift is reflected in the new TV show "Beauty and the Geek." Willamette graduate Eric Chase recently appeared on the show, wooed by three beautiful women. It's unfortunate, Ruehr said, 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 who have computer science aspirations.

The 20th annual Willamette Computer Programming Contest is sponsored by Willamette University and the Software Association of Oregon Foundation in an effort to encourage the development of computer science skills.