The IT Olympiad begins

Athens, Thursday 18th of March 2004

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By Demetris Nellas - Kathimerini English Edition

A different sort of Olympiad began yesterday in Athens, without spectators but with several hundred — 324, to be exact — eager participants from 80 countries.

The opening ceremony for the 16th International Olympiad in Informatics took place at the University of Athens. Today, the competitors will participate in the first half of the competition, which will last four-and-a-half hours, from 8.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. The second half will take place on Wednesday.

Olympiads in the natural sciences have been held for many decades. The Informatics Olympiad was first held in 1989, in Bulgaria. Athens hosted the event in 1991 and Greece is the only country to have hosted the event twice. That year marked the first participation of Western European countries and gradually, the contest, which is limited to high school students, became global. Since then, Informatics Olympiads have been held in Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, South Africa, Argentina, China, Korea, and, last year, in the United States. This year’s version will be held at a building in Maroussi, close to the Olympic Stadium, which served as a media village during last month’s Olympics and which will, in the near future, become the headquarters of the Ministry of Education. This year, thanks in part to the publicity surrounding the Olympic Games, three of these Olympiads (Mathematics and Chemistry are the other two) are being staged in Greece.

Spyros Bakoyiannis, a secondary school information technology teacher and chairman of the organizing committee, explains that the competition tests the students’ ability to devise algorithms, through programming, in order to solve problems. A contestant can use any of three programming languages, Pascal, C or C+, to solve the problems.

These problems are beyond what students are ordinarily taught in high schools. “The grade of difficulty is at least (undergraduate) university level and, unless a contestant has taken the trouble to read the theory on his or her own, the knowledge required is not provided in high schools,” Bakoyiannis says. “What is impressive is that the contestants discover the theory themselves in their attempt to solve the problem,” he adds.

The four students from each country (Greece, as the host, has eight competitors) have been selected through a multistage process. In Greece’s case, the number of stages is four, with the first one taking place last October. As Bakoyiannis explains, the 1,000 or so participants were provided with the problems a month in advance and submitted their solutions through the Internet. This method was followed in the following two stages, as well. In the fourth stage, the 30 finalists were gathered in a certain place, to ensure uniformity of hardware, where they were examined in two problems.

In the Olympiad, the contestants will be asked to solve six problems, with 20 parts each, arranged in order of difficulty. Thus, the most successful algorithms will solve all parts of a problem, while less successful ones will solve some of them, or none at all. There will be a time limit to weed out those algorithms that are too slow in their implementation.

The problem sets were selected yesterday by an international scientific committee. As the problem sets are in English, each delegation includes two teachers who, besides their duties in accompanying the students, will translate the problems for non-English speakers.

Just like in the actual Olympic Games, gold, silver and bronze medals are awarded. Unlike the actual Games, there are no single winners, but several, in each category. It is expected that about one in four contestants will get one type of medal.

There are also practical consequences: Abroad, there are many companies that award medalists with scholarships or promise them employment as soon as they finish their university studies. In Greece, medalists are promised automatic university entry into any school where mathematics is a required entry examination subject. This provision, in fact, has been used by only one of the 13 Greek medalists so far, the others having ensured entry through the countrywide examinations at the end of high school. Three years ago, a Greek medalist from Thessaloniki was offered a full scholarship by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The issue of non-corporate involvement is one that bothers Bakoyiannis. “I would like (Greek information technology firms) to become interested, at least to make a moral commitment that they will employ successful contestants. At a time of high unemployment, this would be an added incentive,” he says.

Bakoyiannis says the level of IT students in Greece is excellent, and the same goes for university studies. “What we lack is investment in research,” he says, adding that neither the private sector nor the State have shown much interest in strategic planning.

Asked to comment on a remark by an executive of a large information technology multinational that Greece has the people with the skills to turn the country into an important software producer — something India, for example, has achieved, Bakoyiannis replies: “If we had decided, 25 years ago, to become makers of PCs, there would have been a chance to exceed India’s performance, even taking into account the fact that it is a low-wage country. Now, we must decide in which sector to specialize: Will it be hardware, software, telecommunications software, or satellite communication? We must be prepared to commit funds to whichever sector we decide to specialize in. But here in Greece, we have a problem adopting strategies and sticking to them.”

In other countries, especially those of Eastern Europe, there are specialized secondary schools for the computer-savvy. Most contestants from these countries are the products of such specialized schools and have undergone intensive training. The US team has even hired a Romanian teacher-coach to train its members.

Bakoyiannis is not so certain about the merits of specialized education at such an early age, but adds that “this is a debate that has to take place sooner or later.” There are two kinds of arguments against early specialization: first, by educators who say that it may harm the psychological development of students, making them socially inept and, second, by ideologues who base their rejection on an “anti-elitist” dogma.

In any case, what the Greek educational system urgently needs are specialized information technology teachers who have also taken courses in teaching methods. When computers were first introduced in schools, in the late 1980s, the authorities allowed non-specialists to teach the course as well, leading to what Bakoyiannis calls a two-tiered system. This, he says, must change.