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three students stand arm in arm

Penn State undergraduate team advances to programming national championship

4 March 2024

A team of three Penn State undergraduate students placed fourth in the East Central North American Regional of the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), qualifying them to advance to the North American Championship.

Chris Kopp, a senior physics major; Vladyslav Myskiv, a first-year computer science major; and Ben Zydney, a senior majoring in computer science, are the members of the team that placed fourth in the October competition at Youngstown State University in Ohio. They are now preparing to participate in the North American Championship from May 23-28 at the University of Central Florida.

three students stand arm in arm
From left to right: Vladyslav Myskiv, Ben Zydney and Chris Kopp, the members of the Penn State undergraduate team that will advance to the International Collegiate Programming Contest North American Championship. Credit: Poornima Tomy/Penn State

The team, along with three other Penn State teams that competed in the regional contest at Youngstown State, was co-coached by Antonio Blanca, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, and computer science graduate students Zhezheng Song and Bucky Park, both of whom competed for Penn State in previous years.

According to Blanca, this was the first time that Penn State has had a team advance to the North American championship.

“This team outperformed teams from some of the top computer science programs in the country who have a strong tradition in these contests,” he said. “This year, the contest also combined two regionals — East Central and Northeast — making their overall rank of fifth even more impressive.”

More than 320,000 people have competed in ICPC contests, the “oldest, largest and most prestigious programming contest in the world,” according to the ICPC website, including nearly 59,000 students from 3,407 universities in 104 countries within the last year. The global algorithmic programming contest is “designed to foster creativity, teamwork, innovation and the ability to perform under pressure.”

According to Blanca, each team receives the same problem set with a number of tasks to solve — 12 this year. Each team has access to one computer and five hours to solve as many problems as possible. The team with the most problems solved wins.  

“Once a team codes a solution to a problem, they send it to the judges to verify it,” Blanca said. “The judges verify its correctness by feeding it a large number of inputs and checking its output. A solution is deemed correct if it produces the correct output in all test cases quickly, as each problem has a time limit and slow solutions are considered incorrect. Incorrect solutions incur penalty points, but teams can try as many times as needed to get a problem correct; penalty points are only used to break ties. Our top team managed to solve nine out of 12 problems this year.”

According to the students, the last few minutes of the competition proved to be the most exciting.

“During the last hour of the competition, I was trying to solve a problem that was hard to implement,” Myskiv said. “In the short breaks, while I was thinking about ways to debug the code to improve the solution, Ben was trying to solve another problem. And eventually, only three minutes before the end of the five-hour contest, he did solve that problem, which qualified us for the next stage.”

The team will continue with five-hour practices each week from now until the national competition in May, which has been their practice scheduled since August, according to the group.

“The problem-solving you learn from thinking about and working through incredibly challenging problems is great at training the brain to learn new concepts in classes, and hopefully will work on large-scale projects that you have to plan out in the workforce,” Zydney said.

About 20 teams from the North American region will advance to the ICPC World Finals, to be held in Kazakhstan later in the year.