Carnegie Mellon University

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December 14, 2012

Competition & Learning

Students Win When Challenged Outside the Classroom

By Piper Staff

Students are taking what they learn in the classroom and putting it to the test in national and international competitions. And it's paying off.

In the last year, CMU students have been recognized for advances in areas such as synthetic biology, architecture, math and security hacking, to name a few.

Mathletes Make Mark

In March 2012, a team made up of then first-year Knaster-McWilliams Scholars Michael Druggan (S'15), Albert Gu (S'15) and Archit Kulkarni found out that they placed second in the Mathematical Association of America's William Lowell Putnam Competition, the premier mathematics contest for undergraduate students.

The competition took place once again on Dec. 1 of this year, when during a six-hour math marathon 135 CMU students attempted to solve 12-complex mathematical problems, using a combination of concepts taught in college mathematics courses paired with creative thinking. Results won't be determined until March.

Po-Shen Loh, assistant professor of mathematical sciences and the team's coach, teaches a 3-credit course in the fall preparing students for the experience. More than 120 students from across the university were enrolled in the class.

"This is the road to getting all of those great internships and excelling in normal math classes," Loh said of the course. "You develop the generic ability to solve problems and understand concepts, and then when you go to take an advanced class in graduate math, you will be better equipped for it."

For Loh and John Mackey, a teaching professor and associate department head of math who previously taught the class, the end goal is having more of the top high school mathematicians interested in CMU. While they may not all be math majors, many of those students go on to study engineering, computer science, physics or more.

Premier Programmers

Members of CMU's computer programming teams, who compete in the Association for Computing Machinery's International Collegiate Programming Contest (ACM-ICPC), spend five to 10 hours a week practicing prior to competitions, said Danny Sleator, professor of computer science and a team coach.

The practice time, as well as the time spent on weekly online competitions such as Top Coder and Codeforces, shows.

Nathaniel Barshay (CS'13); Yan Gu, a Ph.D. student in CS; and Jonathan Paulson (CS/S'13), who compete as the CMU1 team, took first place Nov. 3 in the regional ACM-ICPC. That qualifies the team to compete in the 2013 ACM-ICPC World Finals in St. Petersburg, Russia, next summer.  The remaining four CMU teams placed fourth, fifth, sixth and 23rd out of 131 teams in the regional competition.

"The performance of our teams was tremendous," Sleator said.

Competition may attract and motivate some students, but Sleator said he suspects the greatest satisfaction team members experience comes from the simple act of creating.

"There's a very nice feeling you get from turning your ideas into something concrete, and then seeing it actually work," he said.

In addition to Sleator, the team coaches included Richard Peng and Dong Zhou, both Ph.D. students in Computer Science. IMC Financial Markets sponsors the CMU teams.

"Capture the Flag"

Two teams of undergraduates finished first and second in the finals of the Cybersecurity Awareness Week's (CSAW) Capture the Flag (CTF) competition in November at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, billed as the world's largest student hacking contest.

CTF is a computer security wargame in which teams try to break into opponents' computer systems while defending their own. Each contest can last 24-48 hours, continuously around the clock. The oft-victorious Plaid Parliament of Pwning (PPP) teams, coached by David Brumley, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), participate in six to 10 competitions each semester and travel to five distant competitions - two in South Korea and one each in Russia, New York City and Las Vegas - each year.

"If you're interested in computer security and you want to do things legally, there aren't that many other opportunities to gain practical experience," Tyler Nighswander (CS'13) said of CTF.

The competitions provide hands-on experience that can't be duplicated in a classroom, he said. More than that, however, the competitions provide extra motivation for tackling some pretty challenging academic subjects.

The PPP1 team - Nighswander, Alex Reece (CS'13), John Davis (CS'13) and Maxime Serrano (E'15) - was the top finisher. PPP2 placed second and includes George Hotz (CS'15), Robbie Harwood (CS'15), Ryan Goulden (CS'15) and Garrett Barboza (E'13).

It was the fourth consecutive CSAW win for CMU teams from the PPP security research group. PPP is ranked No. 1 in the world among Capture the Flag teams for the second year in a row, Brumley noted.

Best Biosensor

A fluorescent biosensor that measures cellular activity, created by an undergraduate team, earned the Best Foundational Advance prize at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition's World Championship Jamboree in Cambridge, Mass.

In early November, more than 190 teams from 34 countries used a toolkit of standard, interchangeable biological parts to design and build biological systems that do not exist in nature.

The winning CMU team of Yang Choo (E'14), Eric Pederson (S'15), Jesse Salazar (E'13) and Peter Wei (E'15) used a fluorogen-activating RNA sequence and a fluorogen-activating protein to create a biosensor that glows brighter in response to cellular activities. The CMU invention can be used to measure the output of other systems created using synthetic biology. Instructors Cheemeng Tan, a Lane Post-doctoral Fellow in the Ray and Stephanie Lane Center for Computational Biology, and Natasa Miskov-Zivanov, an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, led the effort to create CMU's iGEM team.

Success With Sustainable Systems

A trio of architecture students - Dan Addis, a master's student, and fifth-year seniors Eui Song "John" Kim (A'15) and Jensen Ying (A'15) - won the International Sustainable Laboratory Student Design Competition for their design proposal for a Salt River Bay Marine Research and Education Center on the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Of the 120 submitted projects, the team's work, titled "Modular Sustainability," stood out as one of the two winning designs because the judges said it "shows a well-documented and thorough sustainable systems analysis and demonstrates a thoughtful, integrated approach to the design process."

The team agreed that their guiding principle in developing the project was to combine system integration with architectural design and a focus on sustainability.

"The competition provided a good opportunity to explore a complex building type on a demanding site and in a challenging climate, all while striving to reduce the impact on the environment and resources," said Gary P. Moshier, a CMU adjunct associate professor and the team's faculty sponsor.