Winning Team: The 2013 ACSL All-Star Competition

by Callie Deng '14

Each year, cream-of-the-crop computer science teams from all over the world congregate to compete in the annual American Computer Science League (ACSL) Invitational All-Star Contest. This year’s 34th annual contest was held on May 25th at Enloe High School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Representative teams are selected based on the performance of individual students in answering ACSL contest questions administered throughout the school year. Students that accumulate the highest scores over the four rounds of ACSL tests in their respective categories constitute the representative teams for the school.

Blair's Senior Division Team with their first place plaques (from left): Jason Hyun, Kiyoon Ko, Scott Wu, Victor Xu, and Eric Neyman. (Photo courtesy of Ms. Dvorsky)
Over 200 teams from the U.S., Canada, Europe, and Asia participate in the contest, providing incredible diversity of thought and background in the competition. This year, two teams from the Montgomery Blair High School Science, Mathematics, and Computer Science Magnet Program participated in the Invitational All-Star Contest, bringing home first and seventh place in the Senior and Intermediate Divisions, respectively. The Blair Magnet Senior Division Team achieved an astounding 117 points out of 120 possible points, beating the second place team by an unprecedented six points.

Dominating such a highly competitive contest was no easy feat; members of Montgomery Blair’s ACSL teams had additional practice in preparation for the invitational round. Unlike the typical rounds of the ACSL contest administered at school, the invitational round consists of five programming questions for the team and twelve short-response questions per team member. Both the programming section and the short responses are worth 60 points, giving a grand total of 120 possible points. Scott Wu ’14, a member of the first-place Senior Division Team remarked, “For the short answer questions, after learning the concepts, we did lots and lots of problems from previous contests to make sure we could do them with 100 percent accuracy.” Furthermore, “for programming problems, Ms. Dvorsky arranged for all of us to go together one day and practice writing programs as we would at the actual competition,” he added. In short, the Senior Division Team was shooting for nothing less than the best.

Even with extensive preparation, however, there were challenges. As Brian Ko ’15 of the Senior Division Team recalls, “There were multiple [challenges]. First, the senior team realized that one of the computers wasn’t compatible with the flash drive we were using… Also, the ACSL program Seega, with its endless miscellaneous situations, gave the team a hard time, coming up with new situations, testing them, and adjusting the program.” Moreover, with only 3.5 hours to complete five programs using the allotted three computers, the teams had to be conscientious of time. “The most challenging part of the competition was time,” Scott Wu agreed. “Whether there is enough time to check over work, or if a potential bug can be fixed in the last half hour.”

To overcome this obstacle, the team needed to settle upon a strategy. According to Brian, in order to maximize efficiency, the Senior Division Team always had three people programming and the other two making endless sample data. “Through rigorous testing, we were able to make our program fool-proof, even with obscure situations… Everyone read the problem, understood the problem, and at the end, we all worked on the problems together. I guess teamwork was our strategy,” he said.

Needless to say, their tactic proved successful. Ms. Dvorsky, sponsor of the Computer Team and a veteran Magnet Computer Science teacher, proudly concurred: “The Senior team was exceptional. I think the success of this senior team was due to how well the students gelled as a team and how well they worked together.”

Beyond the intensive programming and test taking, the American Computer Science League All-Star Contest proved to be an unforgettable experience. Not only did the Blair teams obtain international recognition, but they also had a great time with people passionate about computer science. As Victor Xu ’15 of the Senior Division Team put it, “It was fun - I think the best part was traveling and spending time with people who I don't know that well, since it was a good experience to have.” Additionally, Brian Ko voices his appreciation to those that made the entire experience possible: “I am so happy and thankful that Ms. Dvorsky and Mr. Ostrander took their precious memorial day vacation off to come to ACSL and support our team!”

The ACSL competition provided the students with a challenge, and Blair teams took that challenge head on; they approached it with eagerness and a genuine desire to solve the puzzles placed before them. Though this year’s American Computer Science League Contest has come to a marvelous end, the 35th annual competition wistfully whispers in the distance, beckoning those who wish to test their hand in the realm of computer science.

The Magnet Foundation provided a $2000 grant to cover the cost of rental vans and to pay the expenses of the chaperones attending the competition.