Students from 35 cities train to win International Olympiad

The nine-day training camp for International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI), has 25 students hard at work, at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.
The training is happening at Chennai Mathematical Institute
The training is happening at Chennai Mathematical Institute

CHENNAI: The nine-day training camp for International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI), has 25 students hard at work, at the Chennai Mathematical Institute. It’s an intensive programme, till today, and the last step, before four of them can qualify for the International round in Japan later this year.

India has participated in the Olympiad since 2002, and the camp, travel, and accommodation expenses are funded by Sasken Technologies. Students from schools across the country have bagged 1 gold, 13 silver, and 29 bronze medals so far. In a conversation with Madhavan Mukund, dean of studies, Chennai Mathematical Institute, we find out more about the awareness of programming and informatics among Indian students.
Excerpts follow:

What is the Informatics Olympiad? How do you conduct it at the national level?
Informatics is an European term for Computer Science. The olympiad itself started in the 80s, and we’ve been participating since 2002. It’s one of the activities taken up by Indian Association for Research in Computer Science (IARCS), to build more interest among students in academic matters of computer science. School students from 30-35 cities across the country participate in the first round. We conduct it as a pen-and-paper exam because we’re not sure how widespread programming is at that stage. Two hundred and fifty students are selected to the second round, after which we insist on some basic programming skills in the test. A final 31 are selected for the training camp. And this year, 25 of them are here.

How equipped are students with programming skills, before they come in for the camp?
Most of them are self-taught. We’ve found that even younger students, in class 8 or 9, are able to perform equally well as class 12 students. In fact this year more than 50 percent of them are below class 12.  These are students who are either a part of an online coding community or have picked up the skills from inter-school competitions, as conducted mostly in schools in Delhi, or have simply taken keen interest and learnt on their own. So we don’t train them from scratch.

What is the camp like?
It’s a residential camp, and the students stay in the institute’s hostels for 9 days. The first six days are practise sessions where they take a test from 9 am to 2 pm. Then they attend lectures through the evening till 12 midnight, where they also clarify challenges they faced during the test. It’s modelled on the international exam which is five hour long, with 3 problems to solve. The last three days of the camp is when the final test happens, from which we shortlist four students.

Where do you think Indian curriculum is lacking when it comes to programming skills and algorithm?
We have no effective computer science curriculum across boards. At best, digital literacy is taught, and at worst, historical facts about computers. Computer science as problem-solving has to be embedded in curriculum right from mid-school.  While we send out flyers to schools across boards in the country, students from CBSE, IB, and ICSE mostly participate, with barely any from state boards. The number of girl participants is almost zero. And this is at the international level too. At a global level, we need to try and break a single-minded idea of what computer science is.

Who coaches students at the camp?
Eight members of the Institute’s faculty, who take the lectures, coach the students at the camp. They were former students, who are currently in college, and who have been through the olympiad camp, or similar ones. They are aware abreast of new problems in programming. They design the problems and its evaluation. 

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