Friday, October 31, 2008

Juniors in the South African Computer Olympiad

A concern I have always had with the South African Computer Olympiad (SACO) is the lack of juniors (grades 10 and below) making it through to the third round and eventually the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI). A glance at the SACO winner archive makes this quite evident. The only person that has won a medal in grade 9 or below (and hence stood a chance of making the IOI) was the well-known Bruce Merry.

Why do we have this problem? The obvious problem is that IT is only offered from grade 10 and it's nearly impossible for someone to pick up enough within those first few months in time to make the final round of the SACO. However, it is quite common to get those who taught themselves programming in the earlier grades yet only make the final round in there last one or two years. Vastly different situation to the Maths camp, where grade 8s and 9s are a common occurence.

Today we made a giant step in improving the situation. It goes back to little over a year ago during the final round of last year's SACO. We had three juniors (grades 8-10) joining us on-site for a junior competition in which they couldn't win anything. One of these kids did so well on the first day we invited him to write the senior paper the following day. Unfortunately as he only had a single day's worth of points to stand on, it was near impossible for him to win a medal and a place in the IOI training squad.

This gave us reason to invite a larger number to participate in the training. Due to a strictly worded rule, only the medallists could compete for a place in the IOI. Along with this and our limited budget we had to place several restrictions on those outside the top six, but we invited the next six best non-matrics to attend the training camps of which five accepted the offer. Things ran very well as the larger squad resulted in more discussion as well as pushed the top guys to perform better. Yet still, there was this lack of competition amongst those we called the squad++ as they had nothing to aim for but goals they set themselves.

For this year's final round the rule in questioned was worded more openly. The final round this year was the most competative from recent years and yet we still ended up with a new grade 9 and new grade 10 just missing the medal positions! It's been a long month, but today they were finally accepted into our first ever larger-than-usual squad. We now have ten highly competative kids in our squad, with the distribution being three grade 12, five grade 11, one grade 10 and one grade 9. All are elegbile to make the IOI team next year, and should Charl who's the one in grade 9 make the team he will be our youngest team member after Bruce! Now that they've shown us what they can do it's up to us to train them and make sure we continue to work on the great results.

I have some other plans to further increase the junior numbers. Now that we have these guys as role models it will be easier to catch the attention of other juniors and I don't plan on missing this opportunity. I already have the names of some current very capable grade 8s and 9s wanting to take a shot at the SACO next year. It's going to be a fun and interesting year to come!

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