SICSA Programming Challenges

by Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Heriot-Watt University

29 June 2020

Different communities deal quite differently with the current Covid-19 situation and with lock-down.
Some get stressed over a flurry of online meetings, juggling several different technologies. For
your average hacker, who is quite used to spending hours, days and, well, weeks in front of the screen, the main challenge is to find some interesting activity to keep busy and focused.

That’s where the SICSA Programming Challenge “brave Bartik” comes into the picture. On Wed 17th of June, a SICSA wide team, led by the Computer Science department at Heriot-Watt University ran an online programming competition, tailored for undergraduate and (taught) post-graduate students, featuring a series of programming tasks to be completed in a one afternoon session. The team led by Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl (Heriot-Watt University) picked the OpenKattis platform which provides a huge repository of online problems, and performs automatic scoring of challenges submitted by students. As many of these platforms, it markets itself as a tool for preparing for technical interviews and honing programming skills, thus it is highly relevant for computer science students, who will be entering the job market soon.

The event attracted more than 100 students and about 80 of these students submitted at least one
correct solution to the challenge tasks posed. Five students in total managed to solve all six
problems in the time available. The highest scoring student was a PhD student from the University of
Edinburgh.  Places two and three were captured by one under-graduate student from the University of Edinburgh and one under-graduate student from the University of Glasgow. Students from at least six Scottish universities participated in this challenge.

Overall, the event was a great success, judging from the feedback the students have been giving in post-event surveys: 91% of the students answered Yes to the survey question “Would you be interested in participating in a similar challenge again?” Some quotes given by the students in the free-format feedback questions are:
“It was great to have a opportunity to practice programming competitively during the summer.”
“it was good fun! early challenges good for novices, later challenges good for those with more experience.”

After running one challenge at Heriot-Watt University and this SICSA-wide challenge, we now have an organising team from several Scottish universities in place: Dr Hans-Wolfgang Loidl, Dr Rob Stewart (Heriot-Watt University), Dr Vesselin Velichkov (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Chris Brown
(University of St Andrews). We encourage other academics to get in touch in order to grow the effort and expand the base of potential participants. We plan to build on the success of this challenge and run more SICSA-wide instances of this programming competition over summer.

Our thanks go to SICSA for funding the prize money for winners of the event and for promoting this event. More information on the programming challenge is available here.