"By the time students graduate, a language may not have been invented yet. But when they start a job, they're going to be expected to pick it up -- and quickly."

Quick! The boss needs to know whether your cell phone company provides the best coverage in town. Given the location and range of each cell tower, compute exactly what percentage of the metro area is covered. When you've finished that, write a program to create a computer-generated abstract of any article. As soon as that's done, six more problems await, and the clock is ticking.

Such is the environment at the annual Association for Computing Machinery Programming Contest, in which computer science students have five hours to complete eight problems, ranging from relatively simple to nearly impossible. The team that correctly solves the most problems wins.

Every year, computer scientist Lea Wittie takes teams from Bucknell to the regional contest, and each year, at least one Bucknell team usually places in the top three out of 30 to 40 local teams.

The real-world nature of the problems is good experience for students. "It tends to open their eyes to what they can do with computers, because it's extremely applied," Wittie says. "They are given a non-computer problem, and the computer is just a tool they can use to solve it."

Wittie hosts a similar program in the spring for students in five local colleges and another in the summer for high school and middle school students at the Bucknell Engineering summer camp. This past spring she introduced a pirate theme. As teams competed, the participants donned an eye patch, pirate hat, hula skirt or other item to tell the other teams they'd solved that problem.

In her research, Wittie works to make computer devices such as keyboards, mice and DVD drives work well with computers. Each device has its own driver, or piece of code, she says, that tends to be the buggiest part of the operating system. "My work on checking a given driver for bugs requires translating it into another computer language, a complicated task in itself," she says. Several students have worked with Wittie to tackle different aspects of the project.

Ultimately, Wittie hopes that her students will be able to apply the problem solving skills they acquire in her classes to their future jobs in the technology world. Her courses focus on the elusiveness of computer languages, and she stresses that students and professionals in the field must readily adapt to change. "By the time students graduate, a language may not have been invented yet," Wittie explains. "But when they start a job, they're going to be expected to pick it up -- and quickly."

Posted Sept. 20, 2011

 

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