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Battle of the brainiest

As Thailand’s top talents prepare for the upcoming IOI, Olympiad trainers seek to encourage other youngsters to show greater interest in the discipline In an effort to encourage more Thai students to take up informatics and to pave the way for them to continue their learning at the higher education level and apply their knowledge in real life, Thailand has ensured its participation in the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI) for the last two decades.

Yuen Poovarawan

Through this international academic contest, the country is also aiming to develop groups of young people skilled in informatics , a member of the organizing committee of the 23rd International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI2011), says that Thai students are at the same level as their peers in many countries around the world. An academic competition is unique and different from other sports competitions, which rely as much on physical prowess and condition as on training. An academic competition uses brainpower and the thinking process to solve problems in a limited time frame. This kind of competition depends mainly on training.

The IOI is another competition that also uses the brain to solve very complicated but logical problems using the computer as the tool. To deal with these kinds of problems, students have to undergo serious training by a team of teachers with expertise in informatics.

Each year, all the countries participating in the IOI send their four most talented students to compete. The number of students taking part in this annual battle varies between 300 and 400 and the Thai students consistently rank above the mean average.

“Every country uses the same process to search for the most talented students and gives them intensive training prior to sending them to join the competition. The IOI is the academic stage for the stars and the most talented high school students who use computers and informatics to answer the problems. To attain this kind of knowledge, students have to be trained by teachers who are experts in the subject. It is not knowledge they can obtain from the standard education system,” Yuen says.

The mean average ranking applies to a small group of talented students. However, Thai students as a whole rank below other countries, especially when compared to developed countries. Much of this is a reflection of the country’s education system.

Thailand has been participating in the IOI for almost 20 years in an effort to maintain its capability levels above the mean line. Joining the IOI also serves as a strategy to improve the standard of learning for young students and to increase awareness of the use of informatics and computers for logical and efficient problem solving.

“Participating in IOI every year may be only about a small group of students, but we hope this small group of talented students will encourage the entire student body to show interest in this kind of learning and start practising it as well,” Yuen says.

Yuen adds that the IOI is a stage for competition just like other sports. If the country wants to have many more talents in this kind of sport, then it needs to give students more chances to practise by providing them with a greater number of stages for competitions, both at the local and country levels. Such an initiative would help young people prepare themselves and set them on the road to participate in international competitions.

“At the top level, the academic abilities of Thai students are no different than those from the other countries but we want to expand this group of young talents,” Yuen says.

In order to change the larger education system, he adds, small changes must be continuously made to many parts of the entire system and annual participation in the IOI is part of this goal. This year, Thailand is not just a participant but is also the host of the and thus is aiming to build up more awareness of and inspiration in this kind of academic competition.

“Over the last 20 years, we have seen the development of knowledge as well as an evolution in the students’ learning process. The knowledge itself is dynamic and changes all the time. There are many things that students have to learn. Today’s students have greater learning development than the students in the past,” Yuen says.

There are many ways to find a solution to every problem and the IOI is a stage that allows students to learn that there are many avenues to solve complicated problems. To be the winner, they have to find the best way to solve the problems within the time limit. That requires training using informatics for problem solving and using a computer as the key tool to deal with complex questions.

The students have to learn algorithmics, studying the formal methods to construct programs. The most important question is not so much how a program can be derived from a specification, but rather how that can be done effectively and efficiently.

Apart from knowledge, students also need the ability to concentrate throughout the two days of competition. They have to learn to control their nervousness too. Experience is another important factor in helping students win the competition.

“As teachers we will not put pressure on them. Instead, we will always encourage them by helping them release stress and be relaxed. We want them to do their best and get a good experience from the IOI. We believe that when students do their best, they will get the best result as well. During the training, we also teach them to deal with stress and cope with nervousness,” Yuen says.

As the host country, this year the teachers are divided into three groups: the scientific committee, which is responsible for developing the competition questions; the organizing committee, and the training teams.

“It’s not just about medals. The most important aspect of joining the IOI is that we teach students to enjoy learning. They take the IOI as a challenging game that they have to learn. By joining the competition, students also have a chance to learn from each other, to share experiences and exchange knowledge with their peers,” Yuen concludes.

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