Four New Zealand students are set to compete in the international Olympiad in Informatics in Cairo, Egypt in August this year.
An Australia-New Zealand team will include Ronald Chan, studying at the University of Auckland, Edwin Flores, a University of Canterbury student, Simon Welsh, a student at Scots College, Wellington and Jamie McCloskey of Akaroa Area School.
Although they are officially members of a team, each student will compete as an individual.
The Olympiad is one of a set of long-established contests of knowledge and competence in subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry, linguistics and informatics. About 85 nations are involved. This, however, is the only the third year NZ students have been involved in the informatics contest.
Most Informatics Olympiad contestants are still at secondary school, NZ organiser Margot Phillipps says, but the rules say only that they must be younger than 20 years old and have been at school full-time from September to December in the year before the contest.
Because of the timing of educational years and the fact that New Zealanders start school and university earlier we are more likely than some other countries to be able to enter students currently at university; but we have not abused the advantage says Phillipps; two of the four students entering this year are still attending school.
The contest runs over two five-hour days and students are given three program development projects each day. They must find and implement the most efficient algorithm to solve a problem against a battery of test cases, with run-time and memory limitations on the resulting program.
Often the problem is devised so a simple algorithm suggests itself at first but this does not work with some of the more complex test cases, Phillipps says, so the solution will have to be reworked if initial thought has not been careful enough.
Finding potential contestants is not easy; “most schools don’t teach programming and certainly not C or Pascal [languages typically used for Olympiad projects],” she says. There is a New Zealand Programming Contest with a secondary-schools division and this is fertile ground, Phillipps says. “I find [promising candidates] there and recruit them into a January training camp.”
Sponsorship is the big bugbear, Phillipps says.
“The first year I did it as a one-man band; money was organised from parents and I contributed $800 personally. The second year, Ace Computers paid my fare.”
For a team to attend an overseas contest venue they must be accompanied by an adult team leader.
“This year we’re still in sponsorship-seeking mode,” she says.
The Royal Society sponsors some school students to the extent of 50%-70% of their travel costs; all other costs are met once they arrive, says Phillipps.
Although the great majority of informatics contestants are male, Phillipps says the Australians had one female contender in a previous year “and we have a girl coming up” as a possible future NZ contender.