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Team of UK students among world's best

While this is finals week for University of Kentucky students, the big test for three computer science students will come in February when they take on the world's top collegiate programmers in the Battle of the Brains competition.

The UK team of Mark Hays, Tom Dodson and Stefan Kendall is among the elite 100 teams — out of an original field of more than 7,100 — from across the globe who will compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest's world finals in Harbin, China, Feb. 1-6.

"There's a lot of potential," Jerzy Jaromczyk, the team's faculty adviser, said of the trio. "But there is still a lot of work to do before we become competitive at the world finals levels."

That means lots of practicing algorithms and analytical problem solving await the three students during their winter break.

"It's going to require discipline ... to actually sit down and solve problems rather than playing video games," said Hays, a doctoral student from Nicholasville.

But Jaromczyk is well aware of what it takes to succeed on the world stage in this competition, which started in 1977 and is sponsored by IBM.

This will mark the fourth time in 11 years a UK team has made it to the world finals.

But it's the first trip back since finishing 43rd in the 2003 finals in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Jaromczyk also guided UK teams to the finals in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 2001 and two years earlier in Netherlands.

"I feel we belong, and we are proving we belong in that league," Jaromczyk said. "It's not possible to advance every year, but we are a player."

Douglas Heintzman, director of strategy for IBM's Lotus software division and sponsorship executive for the competition, said returning four times in a little more than a decade is no small feat.

"There are an awful lot of prestigious universities that have only been there once or no times in the last 10 years, including some of the big Ivy League schools," Heintzman said in an interview last week.

In the competition, the teams are presented with up to nine programming problems, which usually are based in a real-world situation. For instance, one problem in last year's world finals asked the teams to compute a landing schedule for airplanes at an airport while another asked them to figure out the minimum amount of fencing "Uncle Magnus" would need to protect young saplings on his farm.

The more problems solved and in the shortest time, the higher the team's score.

Each of the UK team members, all of whom are Central Kentucky natives, has a specialty.

Hays is the algorithms guy. Dodson specializes in graph problems, and Kendall solves string problems and some math problems, Hays said.

"We clicked right away," said Hays, who had teamed with Dodson before but not Kendall. "Our experience, our skill levels — we really complement each other."

Earning a spot in the finals this year was particularly difficult, considering 28,000 students from 88 countries started out — the most ever.

In the October regional competition, UK's team finished third out of 140 squads behind the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Chicago, which solved seven problems.

The UK team completed six in a short enough time to qualify for the world finals and the right to take on international powerhouses such as two-time defending champion St. Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics from Russia, 2007 champ Warsaw University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which consistently ranks in the top 10.

"The level of competition has gone up so much, especially with the Chinese and the Poles and the Russians," Heintzman said. "For an awful lot of these students, this is their golden ticket."

IBM, in fact, uses the competition to scout for talent, Heintzman said.

This year's finals in Harbin, in China's northeast province, coincide with the city's famous Ice and Snow Festival.

Jaromczyk said he expects his team to explore the city, which sits on the Trans-Siberian railroad.

Hays, who has traveled out of the country before, said he's looking forward to exploring the culture. But his main goal is to let the world know more about his university.

"I hope we can put UK on the map," he said. "Everyone has heard about MIT. It would be nice if they knew we were not just about basketball."