The Computing Cow Contest

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An incredibly dedicated fellow named Rob Kolstad ran the USACO USA Computing Olympiad) for the past couple of decades and, in the process, challenged innumerable secondary students throughout the world to monthly tackle a set of tough but doable computing problems. For many of those students, USACO and other computing contests became a hobby of love that later mushroomed into careers in Computer Science and related professions. The “USACO cow” is the theme of this contest. Every problem sneaks in some reference to “Farmer John” and one or more of his cows. The problems are quite fun and often humorous. Students do the USACO competition, usually from home, over the

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Internet (usually ANY three consecutive hours) over a four-day day weekend running Friday morning to Tuesday morning. They can use any hard copy or electronic resources that they can find, but must document code that is copied from elsewhere. There are three divisions: Bronze, Silver and Gold. Teachers must warn their students that the lowest entry level, the Bronze level, is already very challenging. It is crucial that students first learn the expected file-handling and practice the demo competitions found on USACO web site’s USACO Contest Gateway. One year one of my most talented computing students attempted the CCC (Canadian Computing Competition) without having learned to properly format and submit his solutions in any formal computing contest. Later when I looked at his solutions, I could tell that he did most of them correctly, but he received zero credit because he did not format and submit his solutions as stipulated by the contest rules. The following year he again got most of the solutions correct, but this time he knew the contest expectations for submitting solutions. This time he scored equal eighth/ninth in Canada and joined two other Calgary students, all three of whom scored in the top ten in Canada, for an all expenses paid, week-long excurision to Waterloo to compete in the final stage of the CCC. I worked with USACO organizer Rob Kolstad for a couple of years at including some really simple problems that rank beginners could tackle. That worked well, but there is only one Rob and very much work to all of this. My students were most successful after I spent two to three hours of class time doing one or two sample problems. I ensured that they knew how the format and file-handling. I also ensured that they knew how to apply particular wrinkles of the development environment that we used with the contest. For example, do your students know the actual location (directories) of their source code? I always offered bonus marks for participating in the contest, and more for performance. The extra 5% – 10% that could be gained was sometimes enough to push a strong student with a grade in the nineties over the top to getting 100% reported for the course. When students

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earned these bonus marks, I knew that it took hours of study and application to get those bonus marks, but some students always felt a bit guilty because they (eventually) found the experience itself to be so intrinsically gratifying. I also offered alternative bonus marks for extended projects and book reports, etc for those students that preferred to pass computing contests. Please warn all students entering these contests for the first time that the contests are really challenging. I not only prepared my students in class, but reminded them (truthfully) that many of my best students in the past got totally blown away in their first few contests. Like skating and riding a bicycle and swimming, successful computing contestants inevitably fall and rise and fall again and again before figuring out just how to perform well in these contests. If your students are fairly warned, and thus psychologically prepared, then, as is almost inevitable, when they do fall, they will know that is just part of the process, and will

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muster on. A year later, when they are bugging you for the new schedule because the summer contest hiatus left such a huge hole in their creative lives, they will wonder how indeed they found the first contests so difficult to even get off the ground. A solution to the toughest of the three Bronze problems usually involves arrays. The other problems can usually be solved without arrays. This will give you some idea of the beginning difficulty level. Typically, only my best one or two students each year got promoted to the Silver level. Seldom, perhaps once every three years, did I have a student that qualified to compete at the Gold level. USACO competition does pit your students against the very best computing students in the entire world. See below for an example of the format and file-handling that is required. Two integers are found in a file called “test.in”, which are read from that file into two variables called “i1” and “i2”. (The variables start with the letter “i” because the values are of primitives of type “integer” – the word “integer” starts with the letter “i”.) The identification header at the beginning of the file contains a multi-line comment identifying the users “ID” (obtained when registering), the programming language that is used (could be Pascal, C/C++,Java) and the name of the program (TASK = “test”). All input, source code, and output files must contain the name “test” as the root of the file names, thus: test.in, test.java, test.out. The format is simple … after you have learned it. Warn students to first study some of the sample problems before doing an actual contest.

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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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