UMass Amherst Computing Team Heads to International Programming Competition

AMHERST, Mass. - A team of three UMass students is headed to the international finals of the undergraduate programming contest sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the leading computer science technical society. The competition will be held in San Jose, Calif., on March 2.

The students will compete against 50 teams from all over the world, including Japan, Central Europe, Germany, Hungary, and Australia, says computer science professor Robert Moll, the team’s sponsor. More than 1,000 colleges and universities from around the word competed in preliminary rounds held last October.

The UMass team of Brian Hanechak (a computer science and math major from Chicopee), Benjamin Horowitz (a second bachelor’s degree student in computer science, from Northampton), and John Sullivan (a physics exchange student from County Cork, Ireland) finished second in the regional finals last November, tying with Harvard University. Last year, Harvard placed second in the world competition; Massachusetts Institute of Technology was sixth.

"It was very gratifying," said Horowitz. "The competition in our region is very fierce."

Teams tackle six or eight real-life programming problems in about five hours; the problems are essentially word problems with complex mathematical content. Participants must write programs that enable a computer to "find" its way through a virtual maze, or to safely guide anti-ballistic missiles, for instance.

"They’re quick thinkers, and all three are terrific programmers," says Moll. "They wouldn’t have made it all the way to the finals if they were just pretty good. You really have to excel, to do well at this."