Two first-year engineering students fare extremely well in international contest

Two first-year Matie engineering students have shown they can compete on the international stage and perform well. Ralph McDougall (E&E) and Tian Cilliers (Mechatronic) participated in the 31st International Olympiad in Informatics in Baku, Azerbaijan, from 4 to 11 August 2019.

They were part of four-member team representing South Africa. The other two team members were Taariq Mowzer (now Grade 12 learner at Fairbairn College) and Andi Qu (now Grade 11 learner at St John’s College).

Ralph and Tian explain the process that is followed before team members are selected to represent South Africa: “We attended training camps in our Matric year and during the last round, the best performing eight members are identified.” Ralph attended Curro Durbanville and Tian Stellenbosch High School.

The preparation of the team from South Africa included 50 hours of contest programming mainly using problems from thirty past IOI contests. University computer science and mathematics students, Robin Visser and Bronson Rudner, trained the team over five weekends. Robin and Bronson are medal winners at past SA Programming Olympiads and have represented the country at previous IOI contests.

Fortunately, this year Ralph and Tian could draw from previous experience as they participated together in this coding contest in 2018 when they were still at school. This year was Ralph’s third IOI as he also participated in 2017 for the first time when he was in Grade 11.

“At the 31st International Olympiad in Informatics there were 325 participants from 86 countries,” says Tian. The competition took place over two days. On each of the two contest days, participants have five hours to program the solutions to three problems. Participation is on an individual basis. They both agree: “This year was a little easier than last year and lot more balanced. However, it was still very difficult.”

When the results were announced, Ralph and Tian were ranked the fourth and fifth highest ranked African participants respectively, and South Africa was the highest ranked African country as well as the second best in the Southern hemisphere. This is due to the fact that the four South Africans not only fared well, but that the positions they obtained were very close together: Ralph (number 180), Tian (number 182), Taariq (number 183) and Andi (number 201).

The reason why the two Maties participate in Olympiads is that they have been programming for quite a while and like the challenge. Apart from experiencing stiff international competition, they also broadened their horizons in the process. Last year’s IOI in Japan and this year’s one in Azerbaijan exposed them to other cultures. Regarding this matter, Ralph comments: “We learn a lot about different cultures and also learn from other participants how they experience programming.”

What are these two bright young students’ future plans? Without hesitation, Tian says: “I am interested in aerospace engineering and am inspired by rockets and control systems.” Ralph is keeping his options open when he says: “I have no fixed plan yet. I may go into informatics.”

Ralph was also the only engineering student selected to represent Stellenbosch University at the International Mathematics Competition in Bulgaria in July. The other team members were all maths students. Unfortunately, due to the timing of the competitions, he would have missed two consecutive weeks of class and decided to pull out of the competition in Bulgaria for this year.

Read more about the International Olympiad in Informatics here.

See the results here

Photograph: From the left Tian Cilliers, Taariq Mowzer, Ralph McDougall and Andi Qu.