Going for the gold: Clemson’s Brian Dean uses computing to create champions
When it comes to competition, Brian Dean is a champion of his sport. But Dean, an associate professor of computer science, isn’t concerned with jumping hurdles or making the perfect shot. As the director of the USA Computing Olympiad (USACO), Dean sticks it to the competition by going for the gold in the realm of computer programming.
The USACO is one of several national programs for high-school Olympiads in mathematics and the sciences. This program contributes to computer science education at the high school level through algorithmic programming competitions and online training materials.
“We have a lot of online resources for people to learn how to do advanced computing, problem solving and programming,” Dean said. “It’s one of the largest online computing programs out there.”
Dean is passionate about high school computer science education, and contends that it is an area that is lacking in programs. It requires development beyond standard courses.
“Students who are superstars in computer science at the high school level have to learn it mostly on their own,” he said. “In South Carolina, there are small pockets of places with a lot of course offerings, but it’s scarce.”
Thus, the program seeks to bridge this gap, hosting six online programming contests annually with as many as 1,000 students around the world competing at one time. There are three levels of competition: bronze, silver and gold — the gold level being the most difficult.
“Most of the graduate students I teach probably couldn’t solve the problems at the gold level,” Dean said. “But there are high schoolers out there who actually can. They are exceptionally bright.”
From these contests, Dean and his staff identify the top 16 students in the country and invite them to Clemson for a summer training program. During the week-and-a-half-long camp, the students are given fast-paced instruction, challenging programming problems and enrichment lectures on cutting-edge topics in modern computer science.
“They get to interact with a bright peer group, the best in the country, and learn highly advanced concepts,” Dean said.
The top four students from the camp are chosen to compete on the U.S. team at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI), the most prestigious worldwide competition in computing for high school students. And it is a competition that, much like the Olympic games, moves from country to country.
“This past fall it was in Northern Italy,” Dean said. “This summer, it will be in Brisbane, Australia, and then it moves to Taiwan, Kazakhstan and Russia for the next few years. It’s been a wonderful experience for me to travel to some exotic places.”
However, you won’t find any vuvuzelas or face painting at this event. The two-day competition takes place in a large room with hundreds of computers where participants program for five hours each day.
“It’s unfortunately not much of a spectator sport,” Dean said.
The competitors are given three or four problems and must write a computer program to solve them. To calculate scores, each program is run on different inputs to see how many it can solve within a short time limit.
“It’s not just about whether you can write the program, but whether you can actually find a way of solving the problem fast enough and write that in code. It is an algorithmic contest as well as a programming contest,” Dean said.
And Dean knows the ropes. He was a member of the U.S. team as a high school senior in 1994, and traveled to Sweden to compete in the IOI. In college, he became interested in coaching for the organization. He also began attending training camps and getting more involved in the program overall. As others retired, he became the director, taking on the responsibility of managing sponsorship and funding, running summer programs, operating online programming contests, managing the website and coordinating team travel.
“It’s been a lot of work, but a lot of fun,” he said.
Dean also travels to education conferences to spread the word about the program — he even has students join in on the recruitment effort. Last summer, one of his Ph.D. students organized a camp in the Greenville area with help from a computer science teacher at Southside High School.
“We taught high schoolers how to program their cell phones. Since all kids have cell phones, we thought this would be a good way to get them excited about computer science,” Dean said.
And it sure is a good time to be excited for the USACO. At the most recent IOI competition in Sirmione, Italy, the USA team won a total of three gold medals and one bronze medal. One team member even achieved a perfect score. The team’s success has Dean looking ahead with excitement.
“We have a lot of people returning from last year,” Dean said. “There are a lot of really smart kids coming back.”
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