Whizz-kids rise to computing challenge

Out of a field of thousands of students, two UCS pupils are still standing in the prestigious Oxford Computing Challenge as it nears its second and final round.

The thriving Computer Science Department at UCS enters pupils from Years 7–13 into the preliminary Bebras Computing Challenge every November – an online competition held at school that tests students’ computational and logical thinking. The top 10% in each age category proceed to the Oxford University Computing Challenge, with the first round in January.

Distinctions tend to be elusive at this stage, being the preserve of the top 2–5% of contestants; however, this year UCS pupils gained six distinctions and nine merits.

From there, it is harder still to reach the final round, scheduled for 5th March, with only 20 pupils per age group progressing nationally. And yet, against such odds, UCS boys Isaac and Matteo advanced to the final round of their respective Junior (Years 6–7) and Intermediate (Years 8–9) categories.

“This is an excellent achievement,” said Craig Spence-Hill, Head of Computer Science. “It is also the first time that we have had pupils make it through to the final round since we began running this competition a few years ago.” UCS Headmaster, Mark Beard, added, “Isaac and Matteo, take a bow!”

The prodigious pair’s achievement in reaching the final, from an initial Bebras pool of 117,467 pupils for the Juniors and 209,744 for the Intermediate group, is all the more remarkable for the fact that they are largely self-taught. Their home-grown grasp of the programming language Python, among other key areas of knowledge, is certainly serving them well as they strive to further develop their skills and produce programmed solutions to computational thinking problems.

For all the technical know-how, however, it was gut instinct that assured Year 7 rookie Isaac and Matteo from Year 9 that they had done well enough in January’s challenge to have a chance of the final. Even so, they were literally “over the moon” upon learning that they had actually made the cut.

Computer Science, part of the academic curriculum at UCS for more than a decade, is a popular Year 9 and GCSE option, with around 170 students in this age range. At A Level, it is growing too; currently there are two Computer Science sets apiece in Years 12 and 13. UCS also runs a Competitive Programming Club for Year 9 upwards and organises a weekly Computer Science Breakfast.

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