Symantec gives students opportunity to compete

By Megan McNamara

Tamagotchi fans, rejoice. The idea behind the short-lived virtual pet craze is similar to that of the upcoming Symantec software engineering competition.

Students will have one week to program an artificial life form that must survive and thrive in a virtual world, overseeing its progress much as the Tamagotchi owner looks after its beloved pet.

“There’s a task the organism has to perform, such as replicating itself as often as possible, like the Tamagotchi,” said Carey Nachenberg, Symantec fellow and chief architect of Symantec research labs. “This is a totally objective way that we can measure whether students have achieved the goal of the competition. The contest will be judged electronically.”

“The goal we want students to achieve must be something we can count, i.e. how many progeny (offspring) are produced at the end of the competition. The one with the highest amount wins,” Nachenberg said, adding that he could not disclose the specific task required of the organism before the competition.

The competition doesn’t require a strong computer science background, Nachenberg said.

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“We want to foster student interest in software engineering. Anyone can enter, even if they have only taken an introductory computer science course. They might not win, but the contest could give them an interesting new perspective on computer science and its applications.”

The entrant who creates the most efficient and robust virtual organism will take home $10,000 in cash as the first-place winner. The second-place winner will receive $5,000, while the third-place winner will receive $3,000. All contest winners will receive a free trip to Symantec Mountain View to meet with Chief Technology Officer Mark Bergman and Nachenberg, according to the company’s press release.

Nachenberg also teaches undergraduate computer science.

“It can be boring in the classroom,” Nachenberg said. “It is important that students get interesting projects. We want to get students re-energized and excited about computer science. We also want to recruit some great people to work at Symantec.”

It’s a very interesting idea, said Elsa Gunter, associate professor of computer science.

“In general, if the competition has a cool goal and it’s interesting, it can definitely help raise awareness about software engineering,” Gunter said.

“If the competition is well thought-out, it is worth the effort,” she said. “So as long as students can afford the time to do it, it is something they should do.”

“Competitions help increase awareness at the high school level as well,” Gunter said.

Though education shouldn’t be driven by these competitions, they help increase faculty awareness when current assignments fall short of instilling the desire for creative thinking in students, Gunter said.

Associate professor Samuel Kamin, director of undergraduate programs in computer science, said that there are a number of companies that run programming competitions for interested students.

“They’re all different,” Kamin said. “They’re not based on any regular, universal programming language.”

The Symantec competition runs from Feb. 22 to March 1. All completed entries must be received via email, and all submissions must be entered by individuals, not teams.