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Do Contests Promote Computer Science?

By Karen Lang

I am just coming off the spring local programming contest circuit, as many of the nearby universities held their contest during their spring break. Unfortunately, that meant that two of these contests also fell during our spring break.

I put it out there to my students, asking if anyone was interested in spending a day or two of break at a programming contest? Surprisingly, I got two teams together and even had to turn down students. It's usually not too hard to convince students to give up a day of classes to go to a contest, but to have students give up their vacation day(s) really impressed me.

I sometimes wonder about the benefits of these contests. Some would argue that the contests don't reflect real-life situations. Out in the real world, programmers would not be sitting in a crowded computer lab, four to a single computer, racing to find a solution to ten random problems, meeting a three hour deadline. They would not be limited to hard-copy resources.

When I asked my students why they gave up their day off, they said simply, "because this is fun". They enjoy the challenge of solving hard problems quickly under time pressure and in a team situation. They get an opportunity to visit a college where they see professors and college students enthused about computer science. They become part of a group of people enjoying their geekiness for a day. They meet other students who love programming as much as they do.

Do contests help to promote Computer Science as a discipline? It does get the attention of the other students, especially if the team does well. But, I often take my better students, the ones who will be able to do well in the contest. It is not really an opportunity for students curious about the subject to see what it is like. It is more of an opportunity for students who have an interest to get confirmation. Yes, CS is fun and there are plenty of others who feel the same.

What do you think? Are you pro/con for contests and why?

Karen Lang
CSTA Board Member


I asked a similar set of questions on my own blog a while back - http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/ComputerScienceTeacher/~3/RBieMszl390/programming-contests-for-good-or-for-ill.aspx I'm undecided on the whole thing. Yes they are fun but yes they are artifical. They promote quick and dirty programming on one hand but good problem solving and quick thinking on the other.
On balance I think they are positive. It gives students some oppertunity to test themselves and the venues (usually universities or businesses) allow students to picture themselves being there. And that is a good thing.

I agree on balance it is positive, but if the idea is primarily to win, then there is the tendency to select your best students if there is a limit to the number. Such events should be made available for all the students, just as I feel that AP should be open to ALL students who have an interest in computer science.

If we're really interested in promoting CS, it should be made available to all students interested and not just the brightest and those most likely to major in CS whether competitions exist or not. You never know what student will become inspired in spite of his/her "other" academic difficulties or inclinations.

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