Ole programmer wins prize at tech competition

The Midwest Women in Computing MinneWIC conference was held over the weekend of Feb. 20 through Feb. 22 at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. The conference called for young women across Minnesota and neighboring states to discuss the role of women in computing.

MinneWic an initiative to help women network with other women with experience in the industry who share the same passions. Alexandra Best ’15, a computer science major, was St. Olaf’s representative for the undergraduate division and ultimately won first prize.

Her project was a program she developed over her Interim course, Parallel and Distributed Computing. She combined her love of programming with her passion for music. Best loves to sing and regularly takes lessons at a voice studio. It is one of the biggest music studios, giving one-on-one lessons to up to 30 students. Best’s voice instructor, Karen Wilkerson, is tasked with figuring out a schedule that fits everyone into the available time slots, without conflicting with anyone’s obligations. It’s a process that takes all night, and has to be done all over again if anything changes. Best saw this as a problem, and like any programming enthusiast, set out to create change with computer code.

Her idea was simply to create a program that would run through all the different ways one could put the students into a schedule in order to find the best fit. She figured that even if there were many possibilities to check, her program would be able to handle it, because computers are very good at crunching enormous amounts of data an iPhone 5 can execute 5,000 million instructions per second, and desktop computers and laptops can do much more. The problem was that the numbers grew exponentially. For just 3 students and 5 time slots, there are about 24 possible schedules that can be made. For the full 30 students and 43 time slots, however, the number of possibilities has 42 digits.

Obviously, straightforward checking of all combinations wasn’t going to work. Best first tried implementing the techniques she was learning in her Interim course to spread the workload over multiple CPU cores or multiple computers. Even with that, it was still not feasible to check all combinations, so she had to get a little more creative and come up with algorithms to deduce which schedules were more likely and quickly discard those that failed her tests. The final program allowed students not only to fill in their times of availability, but also to rate their preferences, and it was able to consistently find a schedule that gave students their favored spots in under a minute.

Needless to say, many were impressed by her work at MinneWIC. Her plans are to streamline and turn her scheduling program into a web application using HiperCiC an initiative led by Professor of Computer Science Richard Brown to create apps to solve faculty or research problems. This way, the same scheduling logic, speed and efficiency can be used for any context, not just for the voice studio.

Best’s prize was a trip to the Grace Hopper conference, which is the world’s largest celebration of women in computing, held later this year in Houston, Texas. There is a long and storied history of women in computer science. The first programmer in history was a woman named Ada Lovelace. Grace Hopper was a pioneer in shaping the way modern computers are programmed. The technology behind Wi-Fi was invented by a woman named Hedy Lamarr.

In the 1980s, women composed nearly 40 percent of the computing workforce. Unfortunately, this number has fallen drastically in recent years, as the industry has been unable to successfully attract young female students.

Best said that it was inspiring to be around women who not only understand this disparity, but have succeeded in a field notorious for its male dominance.

“It’s exciting that there are so many conferences modeling the Grace Hopper celebration and encouraging women in computing,” she said.

Best could be evidence that things are changing in the computing industry. St. Olaf is certainly doing its best to foster a community for women in computing and launch them into exciting careers.