Computer science students win international award

Faculty and staff got their chance to voice concerns over the budget cuts Tuesday.

Story by Bridget Cooke


Grand champion is a title not many people get to hold.

But a team of four UW-Eau Claire computer science students won that title at the first annual Windward International Collegiate Programming Championships on Jan 28.

Team Grande Letra O, made up of juniors James Felton and Corey Schulz and seniors Jonathan Fretheim and Rebekah Sippert, placed first over runners-up University of Massachussetts and Purdue University (Ind.).

Joline Morrison, chair and professor of the Computer Science Department, gives credit for the formation of the team to Felton.

“He really was the one who made it happen,” Morrison said. “It was James.”

Felton serves as the president for the Student Association for Computing Machinery, which is a reason that Morrison sent him information regarding the competition. He then reached out to CS students he knew would perform well in the championships.

“I contacted everybody, but that’s about the only claim I can take to leadership,” Felton said. “We worked together pretty well. We all just bring out different aspects of, ‘Hey, what if this would happen?’ ‘We’ve gotta think about this’ or ‘What about doing this a certain way?’”

The game titled “RoboRally” is a combat-style contest. According to Windward’s website, the competition is made up of a bracket system, running for 10 games. The sum of the scores from each game combined determined the winner. The solution to the problem provided consists of robots fueled by an artificial intelligence. This A.I. is created by the programmers’ HTML code.

The team said that although they were given eight hours to enter the coding, most of that time was used for planning.

“There was a lot less programming in it than we thought there might be,” Fretheim said. “We had eight hours to work on this problem, and it was really mostly strategizing rather than programming. Most of the time was spent coming up with a strategy that we could agree on.”

On the list of competitors, Eau Claire was among some of the most elite schools in the country, including Stanford (Calif.) and Cornell (N.Y.).

The group said that knowing they were to going to be competing against schools considered so prestigious took the pressure off of their performance.

“I think that we weren’t really expecting much as far as our score went,” Sippert said. “We kinda just did it for fun, and we really weren’t expecting to win anything because we were against Stanford and Carnegie Mellon (Pa.) and Purdue.”

Regardless of expectations, Team Grande Letra O won the championships, and the teammates said they are proud of their accomplishment.

“It was really gratifying to me because I spend time in Phillips Hall with a lot of bright people,” Fretheim said, “but it was gratifying to be able to compare that against other schools who also have a lot of bright people.”

They also gave credit to the curriculum at Eau Claire for their success.

“I think it also says a lot about our program, too,” Sippert said, “and our focus on basic computer programming principles and not just coding.”

Morrison shared their enthusiasm.

“We are thrilled,” Morrison said. “We didn’t believe it.”

Morrison plans to hold these types of challenges in the future if they can find enough students interested in the annual competition.

“We’re hoping we can get a lot more teams so we can have an in-school competition,” Morrison said. “Apparently, we’re going to get this big, fancy, engraved trophy that will help publicize, and we’re going to really work much harder to get multiple teams to participate.”

Morrison said she looks forward to holding such events, and that she is glad Eau Claire’s Computer Science Department is receiving such recognition.

“This was really a big accomplishment in terms of competing against schools of that caliber and actually winning,” Morrison said. “In the past, we’ve had students compete in programming contests, and usually we finish sort of in the middle, so actually winning a competition like this was really a big achievement.”