Nerds deserve glory too

When Paul Henderson scored the victorious goal against the Soviet Union in 1972 to clinch victory in the Summit Series, Canada burst into spontaneous celebration.

Brian Jackson, associate editor,

In what is now known as “the goal of the century” and has been commemorated on a stamp and coin from the Royal Mint, Canada’s dominance in a sport we hold so dear was cemented. In the Cold War era, the fact that it came against the USSR made it even sweeter.

Well what if I told you there’s an annual competition being hosted every year where Canada is competing against Russia (and many other countries from around the world) but not winning dramatically? In fact, our boys are getting creamed year a

fter year, shown up by their Russian and Chinese peers. And it’s (dare I say it) more important than the outcome of a hockey game, because it’s an indicator at how good our country is at generating innovative computer scientists that will shape the future economy.

Covering IBM’s Association for Computing Machinery International Collegiate Programming Competition (ACM ICPC), not only was I impressed by the length of the contest’s acronym, but astounded by the intelligence of the students participating. In discussions with IBM’s computer science PhD holders, young coders discussed cutting edge technologies and the implications they might have on society. These youth were bright and engaged, with a precision of thinking that was as clear in their rhetorical arguments as it was in their ability to code solutions to complex problems.

But in recent years, the best and brightest of those contestants haven’t come from Canada or the U.S. They’ve mostly come from China and Russia.

The last North American team to win IBM’s Battle of the Brains was the University of Waterloo, taking the trophy in 1999. The last American school to win the trophy was Claremont, Calif.-based Harvey Mudd College, winning in 1997. There are some teams that buck the trend – for example the University of Michigan at Ann Arbour was a close second spot in this year’s competition – but the top 10 teams have been consistently dominated by eastern countries for the past decade.

Notably, the St. Petersburg State University of IT, Mechanics and Optics has become like a dynasty over the past 10 years, winning four championships and consistently coming in the top 10 spots. When the team first won in 2004, it was invited to the Kremlin to meet then-President Vladimir Putin.

Canada and the U.S. aren’t the first countries to face challenges in teaching science in public education. China’s ruling Communist Party was sufficiently alarmed about its situation in 1994 that it issued a proclamation, saying “the level of public education in science and technology is an important sign of the national scientific accomplishment. It is a matter of overall importance in economic development, scientific advance, and the progress of society.”

In writing that, China recognized what many political leaders in the Western hemisphere now willfully ignore. We’re facing a science and tech deficit compared to other regions in the world. In particular, the American education system that was once the envy of the world over and generated a startling amount of rapid innovation, is now stewing in a brew of mediocrity. Yet leaders seem more interested in pretending everything is OK rather than actually putting together a plan to address the problem.

IBM’s contest is to be applauded for boosting interest in the field of computer science and challenging students to better themselves. But it also demonstrates a greater societal trend of the decline of quality scientific skills and knowledge among North Americans in recent years. Possibly in part because our culture depicts those skilled in computer science as “nerds”, preferring to celebrate heroes that know how to skate.

It was a trend that cosmologist and author Carl Sagan bemoaned in many of his writings.

“Parents should know that their children’s livelihoods may depend on how much math and science they know,” he wrote in a 1989 article for Parade Magazine. “Parents might encourage their schools to offer – and their kids to take – comprehensible, well-taught advanced science courses.”

I doubt that the University of Waterloo team that won a bronze medal at this year’s Battle of the Brains will get a phone call from Stephen Harper, or even an e-mail from a local politician. It’s more likely they’ll continue to brilliantly code the solutions to meet our society’s complex problems in obscurity.

That’s not good enough. We have to start boosting our science and technology heroes, celebrating them with at least a fraction of the glory and prestige we so readily lend out to hockey players.

So next year if the University of Waterloo solves a coding problem in the final minutes of IBM’s Battle of the Brains to beat out the Ruskies, lets treat the winners a less like nerds, and more like Paul Henderson.

Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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