Recently, a team of sophomores at Fulbright has won a Bronze medal at the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC), the oldest, largest, and most prestigious algorithmic programming contest for college students around the world. Defying popular assumptions, liberal arts education equipped them to excel in a programming contest against students from computer science-specialized schools in multiple unexpected ways.
When Nguyen Phung Nhat Khoi applied to Fulbright, he expressed his passion for coding and his aspiration to compete in an international programing contest, namely the ICPC. Upon his admission, Khoi kept his promise. He formed a team with two other freshmen to enroll in 2019 ICPC Asia Da Nang Regional Contest, an experience that greatly inspired their academic journey. This year, the team has grown to a group of ten students, who have been meeting every week to train and prepare for the tournament.
“We have been training since summer, teach ourselves to code and solve algorithmic problems. Professor Nguyen Hung Son would do weekly conference call from Poland to coach us on a variety of techniques. Then about a month prior to the contest, we started to focus on testing ourselves with previous years’ questions. After each test run, we would sit down and reflect to see how our group dynamic work, where to improve and form smaller teams in ways that every member can complement one another best.”
In the end, there were two teams that represented Fulbright at ICPC this year, including Nguyen Phung Nhat Khoi, Doan Duc Nguyen Long, Le Hoang Phuc, Nguyen Cao Nghi, Tran Nhut An, and Nguyen Thien Phu. Both teams successfully passed the provincial and national round, advanced to participate in the ICPC Asia Can Tho Regional Contest, where one of them won a Bronze medal. “This is quite an impressive achievement, especially for a group of second-year students,” professor Sebastian Dziallas exclaimed.
Learn for the sake of learning
“Back in high school, I was really aggressive in competitions, I always had to win. But since I joined Fulbright, I got infected with this new idea of doing things for the sake of learning, and it has really broaden my horizons,” Nhat Khoi recalled.
Doan Duc Nguyen Long also concurred: “When you learn for the sake of learning, you do not get affected too much by peer pressure. Yes, we are still competitive, but we don’t have to be sore if we didn’t win. The whole experience become much more enjoyable, and with that relaxed mentality comes many benefits, you actually get a better result. You don’t get caught up when hitting a road struck but instead you know to utilize teamwork, reflect to create strategy, to maximize the time and resources best.” Nguyen Long shared that he joined the team purely out of interest without much experience in coding. Curiosity and desire for knowledge were the driving factors for the team to surpass any obstacles.
In opposed to the stereotyped and often lampooned ideas about liberal arts education being futile and lacking in “skills,” studying for the joy of learning actually turns out to be surprisingly practical. These students are multi-capable to face any challenges thrown at them, especially in a time of unpredictable future like now.
Coding – a Science and an Art
While the Arts majors are what most people would think of when mention a liberal arts education, STEM is also thriving under the breadth of this pedagogy as well. In the liberal art approach, computer science is considered as a tool not just for career preparation, but for creative expression, cultural criticism and civic awareness for understanding an increasingly computational society.
Coding is undoubtedly rigorous, which is an excellent ground for critical thinking because programmers need to be able to conceive of the purpose and function of a program, design its outline and implement its details in ways which enhance user experience and maximize functionality, engage on many levels at the interface between humans and machine. In a sense, coding is also an art. Like music, it combines creativity with mathematical precision.
In competitions like ICPC, it requires definite meticulousness and a flexible collaboration between both hard and soft skills while teams are to race against the clock in an intense exercise of reasoning, strategy, and persistence. Though it is a programming contest, it needs more than just programming techniques, and this is where Fulbright’s liberal art education comes in handy.
Amongst the team members, about half of them major in Arts or double major it with Computer Science, including Tran Nhut An. Nhut An explored that although Arts and Coding might come across as an unlikely combo for most, the two majors actually complement each other very well. The Computer Science discipline trains computational thinking as an essential skill for all students to master alongside the established skills of reading, writing and arithmetic – it is a universally applicable attitude and skill set for everyone.
“I apply this computational thinking to help me connect the dots, write reflection essays in Arts courses. Asides from that, the arts often help me find creative approach when facing algorithmic problems of coding.” An believes that the fields of literature, history and philosophy have as much to teach programming as they do to learn from it.
The value of experimental learning
As much as the skills and knowledge learned in class are needed to create a strong foundation to advance in the future, they are simply not enough. Students need to play in the field quite literally by partaking in experimental learning opportunities to enrich their education experience. With that comes the preparation to grapple, imaginatively and responsibly, with the complex challenges they will face throughout their lives.
Contests like ICPC are one of the many learning opportunities beyond classes that Fulbright students are encouraged to take part in. “These kinds of contests are more theoretical than others, which we treat as a sport exercise for the brains. Although it might not have practical implication in real life, the skills we cultivate throughout this whole experience are definitely worthwhile,” Nhat Khoi shared. The students all agreed that these experiences help them tap into a new pool of knowledge that they would never otherwise actualize.
The most valuable skill they learned through this journey is how to communicate effectively because in contrary to popular belief, programming is in fact a communicative process. Being able to express ideas clearly, whether in a team meeting or code comments, is absolutely critical, especially with the current trend of virtual learning and working from home. Ultimately, it’s a team effort founded upon independent expertise coming together. Beyond their success at ICPC contests, the students are more than ready to take on new challenges.