Learning to Compete and Competing to Learn
There are many styles of learning and just as many, if not more, approaches to teaching. Innovative educators look for methods to engage students in ways that do more than simply encourage rote learning and, instead, inspire students to seek out challenges and problem solve at the highest levels. Enter competitive learning events. The structured competition environments of these events demand a convergence of many approaches to learning — visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical and social — and cement complex concepts for students for years to come.
Baylor computer science students and their faculty sponsors participate as teams in a variety of competition-based learning activities. The teams practice together outside of class, over holidays and often on weekends during competition season with the commitment similar to that of student-athletes. The high-pressure competitions prepare students for a working environment in computer science in a way that a classroom setting could never replicate.
The International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) is one of the oldest and largest programming contests in the world. Through local, regional and international competitions annually, college students participate as teams of three in problem solving to demonstrate and improve their programming skills.
Baylor faculty from the computer science department have contributed significantly to the competition’s success and longevity. Baylor was recognized in April 2019 with the Global Impact Award during the 43rd Annual ICPC World Finals for 35 years of commitment to the contest’s organizational body, the ICPC Foundation. The competition’s history dates to 1970, but Baylor University has been the ICPC headquarters since 1989, led by Dr. William Poucher, ICPC executive director and professor of computer science.
“What I truly love about the ICPC is that we’re a culture of excellence that is principle-based and service-based,” said Poucher. “First, we do what we do in good will. Second, whatever we do, we follow the golden rule. There are not a whole lot of organizations that will buy into that. However, these two principles are the reasons why we’re 50 years old.”
Each competition presents real-world problems to contestants through a wide range of scenarios, from concluding the minimum cost of an arched bridge design to determining nesting in circular DNA for a bioinformatics research group. ICPC keeps Baylor students and professors on the cutting-edge of programming education and provides a global platform for leadership and service.
“The ICPC is important to Baylor because it positions the University’s name as a leader in education,” said Dr. Jeff Donahoo, ICPC deputy executive director, executive director for the World Finals and professor of computer science. “There are lots of places around the world that have heard the name ‘Baylor’ through ICPC, and it really projects the strength of Baylor’s commitment to global education.”
The job market demand for highly educated and knowledgeable computer programmers means that major companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon offer employment to participants and winners. Employment prospects and the unparalleled value of experience attract contestants from all corners of the globe. For the 2019 competition, 52,709 contestants from 3,233 universities in 110 countries on six continents competed for a spot in the World Finals.
Baylor University’s Cybersecurity Team similarly trains for and competes in real-world information security situations. The team of 12 prepares for the Collegiate Cyber Defense Competition (CCDC), a multi-tiered contest with local, regional and national levels.
CCDC events mimic the inheritance of a commercial IT network with vulnerable systems and necessary changes. Each team works to secure the network, repair systems and implement new business requests while simultaneously protecting against hacking by professionals known as the red team. Each team begins with an identical set of hardware and software and must adapt and respond to challenges in real-time.
Dr. Jeff Donahoo coaches the team and teaches a corresponding course in the computer science department. Not all the students in the class compete on the team, but most take the course more than once to further their skills and vie for a spot on the team roster.
“You can’t be successful just based on individual technical skill. The team has to be able to coalesce and come together as a group. One of the real strengths of this team is their ability to unite and work toward a common goal. It’s particularly hard under attack,” said Donahoo.
In 2018, the team placed fourth in the nation despite only being in their third year of competition. The ability to perform well in an environment that closely replicates real-world offensive and defensive cyber activity better prepares students interested in cybersecurity career fields.
“It wasn’t until I competed in the competition that I was like, ‘okay wait, I actually love the competition.’ I felt like I could really see myself doing this and this is truly what industry is like. I’ve gotten internships and job offers purely because this is the kind of experience that a classroom just can’t teach you,” said Maddie de la Torre, captain of the Cybersecurity Team.
CCDC is presented by Raytheon, and is often sponsored by impressive companies or organizations such as Walmart, Amazon, the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency. With the national competition lining up with the end of the spring semester, many graduating seniors are offered jobs with sponsors immediately following the competition. Employers are able to review students’ technical skills, teamwork and problem solving in high-stress situations that replicate realistic commercial scenarios, making the competition experience highly valuable to employers and students.
Competitive learning through contests like ICPC, CCDC and the Baylor Cyber Day HackFest keep the University on the leading edge of computer science education. Baylor faculty members involved with these competitions are able to use the events as a framework for setting up similar scenarios in the classroom, and they are able to rework curricula to meet the needs of the ever-changing field. The opportunity for students to connect and learn from industry experts on the national and international scale has a priceless impact on their careers.
“Companies are extremely interested in the students on the team because they’ve gone above and beyond classroom experience. These corporate sponsors want the opportunity to observe these students in the competition, stressful environments. If they do well, they get offered all sorts of great opportunities. This skillset is in demand,” said Donahoo, who is also one of the CCDC sponsors.
Competitive learning teaches students a lot about themselves — performing in competition helps them to become more confident, experiencing real-world environments can guide their career goals, and they discover where their skills can improve. The addition of a competitive setting and experience expands learning opportunities and transforms the way that students interact with their coursework. Through the nature of competition, students are incentivized to engage more with the related curricula beyond the classroom, as well as consider ways their classwork can be grown to further their skills.
“There are only so many scenarios that we can emulate in class, which just kind of caps how much knowledge and skills and capabilities that you have. Then when you go to competition, it kind of brings in a new perspective like, ‘Oh, I’ve never actually considered to set up that service’ or ‘Oh, we’ve never been attacked in that way. How would we go about preventing that in the future?’” said de la Torre. “When we come out of the competition, we write down things like, ‘What did we go through? What did they have us do, what did we find was challenging? How are we going to fix that in the future? How can we incorporate teaching that into the class?’ Every time we come back from competition, I feel like the class just grows so much more in what it’s able to do.”
Baylor’s participation in competitive learning completely transforms the way that students experience their education through the computer science department. The competitions allow faculty and students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses to reformulate their learning and training to focus on areas of improvement or new, previously unconsidered scenarios.