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UCSC computer programming team advances to ICPC Nationals

The BrokenHeart team and coach Vaggos together after the ICPC competition holding balloons
The BrokenHeart team, pictured left to right: Wilson Xie, Hazel Prasetya, Daniel Chang, coach Vaggos Chatziafratis.

For the first time, a UC Santa Cruz computer programming team will compete in the International Collegiate Programming Contest (ICPC) North America Championship (NAC) taking place May 23-28 at the University of Central Florida. The ICPC is a prestigious algorithmic programming contest in which teams of three students represent their universities and collaborate to solve real-world problems, such as optimizing subway schedules or tracking robot movements.

In February, UCSC had record-breaking representation at the Pacific Northwest qualifying competition, with 18 Baskin Engineering undergraduate students attending across six teams. More than 140 groups competed including teams from Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and others. Only five teams advance to the national competition, and each must be from a different university. In a race against the clock, the UCSC Division I team called BrokenHeart finished eighth overall, qualifying UCSC for one of the top five spots at Nationals.

Reaching the national competition is a milestone for the Slug Competitive Programming (SlugCP) Club and for UCSC.

“Our qualification for NAC this year is the culmination of three years,” said Daniel Chang, a fourth year Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) student.

Part of the SlugCP Baskin Engineering student club, the BrokenHeart team members are undergraduate students Daniel Chang, Hazel Prasetya, and Wilson Xie. The club was founded in 2022 by fourth year Computational Media student and club president, Nhan Nguyen. The six club teams are coached by Assistant Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Vaggos Chatziafratis.

The UCSC ICPC teams together after the competition, holding balloons
All six UCSC ICPC teams.

“In 2022, our club had just started and we were still a Division II team, but because of our improvement, we qualified even with a stronger field,” Chang said.

Chatziafratis views the SlugCP club as a way to strengthen the students’ academics.

“At the heart of ICPC problems are algorithmic questions which they may have been taught in a CSE class,” Chatziafratis said. 

To prepare for competitions, the club meets weekly with Chatziafratis.

“I present problems lecture-style, then encourage students to brainstorm solutions and discuss the algorithmic ideas behind it,” Chatziafratis said. “The difficulty isn’t always the algorithm itself,” he explained, but rather in “figuring out how to combine existing algorithmic tools from previous problems to code it up.” 

The club also offers a way to prepare students for coding interviews and network with companies that attend the ICPC competitions.

“My vision is to have ICPC at UCSC grow and become an activity that students can get involved with, get stronger with coding and meet other students,” Chatziafratis said. 

For Xie, a first-year Applied Mathematics student, ICPC has connected him to a community of peers, and he said the team’s recent accomplishment is “motivating me to keep practicing coding.” 

The team is proud to position UCSC as a top competitor against other schools. However, “it’s important to emphasize that you can be at any skill level to join,” said CSE student Prasetya, who encourages undergraduates interested in competitive programming to join SlugCP.

Chatziafratis and the team would like to thank Dean Alexander Wolf for his support.

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