2015 Iverson Exam Challenged Alberta’s Most Elite K-12 Problem-solving Minds

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I was blown away by the extraordinary quality of the University of Calgary Rob Kremer’s analysis of the 2015 Iverson Exam presented at the University of Calgary Computer Science Teacher’s Symposium on 22 June 2015. 
  I thank Rob for letting me share this copy of his PowerPoint slide show:  Iverson2015.key .  The following opinions are my own and not necessarily those of anyone else, including those of Rob Kremer.

The 2015 Iverson Exam has a level of difficulty that will challenge Computer Science university faculty, but Rob Kremer did an amazing job at presenting both solutions and (who would have thought) proofs for those solutions as well.  It is difficult to appreciate just how superb Rob’s presentation is until you consider the challenge of the material that Rob presented and discussed.  This level of problem-solving is addressed at senior undergrad and graduate (MSc/PhD) level university courses, but Rob’s great slides and explanations make it as accessible as we could have hoped.


Amazingly, there were students who both wrote and welcomed the experience of writing the 2015 Iverson Exam, testimony to the precociousness of those particular students.  We must think about this.  It would be easy to criticize this year’s Iverson Exam for being too difficult for even a strong high school Computer Science student, which it is, but the 2015 Iverson found a pocket of students for whom it was both challenging and rewarding, the sort of student who all too often finds insufficient challenge in a typical high school curriculum.

The 2015 Iverson problems were definitely not appropriate for testing the problem-solving abilities of a cross section of typical Alberta high school students.  The 2015 Iverson Exam was a problem-solving IQ test that could be solved by only Alberta’s most elite problem-solving students … not merely strong students … but Alberta’s very best academic students regardless of their Computer Science background.  The toughest problems of this year’s Iverson were far too difficult for a typical Computer Science (or other) student or K-12 teacher for that matter, but surely that was not its audience.  Computer Science is about problem-solving, but so are all of the math and science disciplines.  The 2015 Iverson was not particularly or uniquely a Computer Science competition, but it did a superb job at testing problem-solving performance of the crème de la crème of all K-12 students.  That is a good thing.

The difficulty level of this year’s Iverson Exam was not appropriate for a cross-section of Alberta Computer Science students, but it was an amazing problem-solving exam.

Why not officially have the Iverson target exclusively the very best K-12 problem-solving minds in Alberta and simply embrace that goal?  I recommend that the Iverson Exam be targeted to Alberta’s K-12 elite math and science students … PERIOD.  Some of Alberta’s best problem-solving students do take Computer Science, but many do not.  The 2015 Iverson Exam was appropriate for the exotically gifted student and they do exist.  Rob Kremer’s exposition and analysis did document the challenge of the 2015 Iverson Exam.


What about the 2% Elite and what about the other 98% of Alberta students for whom the 2015 Iverson Exam was too challenging?

(1)  We need a virtual space where Alberta’s elite problem solving students and those aspiring to that status can meet, interact and work toward honing their already considerable talents.  We correctly jump through whoops to facilitate the needs of our academically most challenged students, but there are too few opportunities that facilitate the growth of our most gifted Computer Science students.


Every year 1-4 of my students qualified for a free all-expense paid one week trip to Waterloo, a privilege that they earned by performing well in the Canadian Computing Competition (CCC).  Invariably these students reported that this was a life-changing experience.  The lessons learned were great, but what they most appreciated was meeting and forming friendships with other like-minded and similarly-gifted students.  I always offered bonus marks for students who merely competed in the USA Computing Olympiad (USACO) Contests.  I required that all of my students prepare for and compete in the CCC.  The keenest students would spend the hundreds of hours required to work through the USACO Training Program which attempts to categorize most TYPES of computing problems into chapters and sections; giving solutions and explanations to the problems AFTER you have solved them.  (Yea, go figure.)


The most ambitious elite students will find a Disneyland of problem solving at Topcoder.  TopCoder has a Java app called the “Arena” for competition that you download and run on your home PC.  TopCoder has oodles of past programming tournaments together with thousands of problems and all the solutions that were attempted by the competitors!  Problems are available by level of difficulty.  You can choose the language to compete in from among Java, C++, C#, VB and Python.

Some high school students prefer to play arcade type games, others will spend time mastering the skills of a sport or musical instrument, but for some students, computer programming competition become their passion and they will spend an entire summer just solving programs.  We need a virtual space for those students.

(2)  Our typical high school Computer Science students would benefit from preparing for a common Diploma-type exam based on a common curriculum such as some other Alberta Education subjects have, or perhaps similar to those administered by IB and AP.  For most students, a final exam is a great motivator and it does have the benefit of pulling students through a thorough review of the material to be examined.  It would also be nice to see some standardization of Computer Science curriculum in our province such as we find with the IB and AP Computer Science courses.

About the Author:

Gerry Donaldson was Calgary’s first high school teacher to use a lab of personal computers. Gerry taught CSE, including CTS, AP and IB Computer Science, for 30 years before teaching and consulting to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Calgary.
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