Russian students dominate at the computer programming olympics — and American computer science students are unsurprised

When Alexander Iverson, 20, was in first or second grade, he learned about subtraction and the order of operations. Though his answers in class and on homework assignments were almost always correct, the teacher consistently failed him.

The reason? His more efficient method of calculation — essentially inventing the concept of negative numbers (something Iverson’s class had yet to learn) and then rearranging the order of operations to fit his method — went against the teacher’s instructions.

Iverson, now a rising senior studying computer science at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a recent competitor in the collegiate “Olympics of computer programming,” recalled that experience last week in a phone interview.

“It was awful,” he said. “Essentially, I invented a piece of math that accomplished a task better than the one I was taught and I was penalized for improving something.”

That experience, Iverson said, sticks in his mind as a perfect example of the problem with math and computer science education in America, a problem perhaps never more evident than on May 24, when Rapid City, South Dakota, hosted the 41st annual International Collegiate Programming Contest World Finals.

From about 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. that day, nearly 400 of the world’s finest young computer programmers — composed of 133 three-person teams from 44 countries — competed to answer as many of the 12 computer programming problem sets as they could. Each team in attendance had already passed through regional competitions, besting 46,381 students across 103 countries in 530 different regional locations.

At around 5 p.m., the results came in.

The first-place prize went to a Russian team from the St. Petersburg National Research University for Information Technologies, Mechanics and Optics, solving 10 problems in the shortest time period. Just one problem, organizers and coaches explained, would take typical…

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