The Binary Bears is a computer programming team at Mercer that competes with other colleges to solve complicated programming and coding problems in a timed setting.
The Binary Bears had their first competition at the Small College Contest held at Auburn University on Oct. 26 where they placed second overall after Bob Jones University.
The team had their second competition of the semester on Nov. 10. This competition was the Association for Computing Machinery’s Collegiate Programming Contest, where schools and universities of all sizes are allowed to participate.
“The ACM program is open to some really big schools, including those with graduate programs. It’s a really wide range,” Avery Zebell, assistant coach to the Binary Bears, said.
Each competition has its own rules with different specifications for the number of students allowed to participate in each team. Mercer’s Binary Bears divides the participants up into an A-Team and a B-Team for each competition.
“In the Small College Competition, four people are allowed to be on a team, while the ACM and the Mercer spring contest will only be three people,” Zebell said.
The spring contest will occur at Mercer University. While Zebell and the team said they are excited for competing here, Zebell said that this leaves little time for practices between now and then.
The Binary Bears practice every Thursday from 7-9 p.m. in Willet Science Center. Michal Pacholczyk, a junior computer science major and a team member of the Binary Bears, said he believes that this practice is paying off.
“At the Small College Competition, the A-Team placed third and the B-Team for Mercer placed second. Both teams solved eight out of the nine problems that day. The first place winning team, got all nine problems solved. Both Mercer teams, unfortunately, were only one little code change away from getting the last problem and gaining the top spot,” Pacholczyk said.
Other competing colleges at this event were Roanoke College, Georgia College and State University and the overall winners of the competition, Bob Jones University.
“The Binary Bears is all about working with your team and working with your friends to put in effort to solve problems in unique ways and find clever solutions. You have to think about a lot of different elements that go into these, usually, mathematical problems or word problems. It’s really a lot of creative problem solving,” Pacholczyk said.
With this creative problem solving and need for clever solutions, Pacholczyk said he has learned many lessons from being part of the Binary Bears.
“I’ve learned a lot about optimizing my work ethic while writing code. I also learned a lot about working on a team while writing code. Although most of the time we do these programming sessions and we swap out who is on the computer to write, there’s a lot of back and forth, a lot of ‘Well, how would you do this differently?’ especially with writing code on paper before it goes on the screen,” Pacholczyk said.
When it comes to competitions, there are strict rules based on who gets to use the computer and when.
“When we’re at competitions, you’re only allowed to use one computer,” Zebell said. “The rest of the team members have to code on paper. It’s a pretty important aspect of the contest. Because they only have access to one machine at a time, one person will do the code and test it as they go while the others get to think about the problem more carefully so when they get on it (the computer), they’ll be able to put in good code.”
For each competition, the groups are given a packet of questions that the team is allowed to look through. The Binary Bears’ strategy is to look for the questions that are easiest to solve first as a group to get them done quickly. The team then moves on to the harder questions.
“We try to choose one or two problems that we can immediately start and get done in, like, five minutes. Then we go to the harder problems, like maybe doing an integral solver on the computer. You really have to think about that,” Pacholczyk said.
At the Small College Competition, the Binary Bears were given three hours for nine problems, while the ACM competition that took place this fall and the Mercer competition occuring in the spring allow teams five hours for 11 or 12 problems.
“The five-hour ones are always pretty funny because you can solve like five problems in the first hour and then you won’t do anything for another two hours cause you can’t get something to work,” Pacholczyk said.
Looking to the future of Binary Bears, Pacholczyk and Zebell said they want to continue to advance and improve for future competitions.
“I think the ongoing goal is to beat Bob Jones at the Small College Competition,” Zebell said. “They’ve won for the past three years, and we placed second right behind them. They always seem to win in the last 15 minutes.”
Pacholczyk said he wants to make sure team member growth continues.
“We really want to get more people on the team. We need people to know the same programming languages that we use and then we can allot our time better. Once I graduate, I won’t be able to compete, so it’s important to always get new people,” Pacholczyk said.
At the beginning of the semester, approximately 20 people regularly attended practices, but this number dwindled down as the semester progressed. The amount of people on the teams also depends on the competitions as different numbers are needed for different teams. At a practice on Nov. 7, 12 members were in attendance since only the AMC competitors came to that practice.
For the AMC competition, the Binary Bears sent four teams of three people each to compete for Mercer, although the number of students sent varies for every competition.
“AMC is the larger, more prestigious contest, so we try to send more folks,” Zebell said.
Zebell and Pacholczyk said that anybody can join the Binary Bears programming team.
“We’re looking for more people, but determining who goes to competitions is based on who shows up to the most practices, who’s doing well at solving the problems and also who is trying to improve,” Zebell said. “Some of the newer folks who haven’t programmed much are so excited, and they’ll even practice more on their own time. We can really see their improvement, so they’ll usually end up going to competitions.”
Any class is allowed to join the Binary Bears, though the club has no freshmen at this time. Pacholczyk said he believes that the Binary Bears can teach students a lot in preparation for graduation.
“It’s always nice to have something like this on your resume, of course,” Pacholczyk said. “You really learn to work with teams and be able to listen to other people’s input. It teaches you to keep a cool head when you’re trying to do something in a short amount of time because you can’t get frustrated at having wrong outputs or you won’t be able to finish on time. It also helps when dealing with criticism. It’s very hard to ask input from your peers sometimes because you think you’ve wrote the perfect thing, but it may be the worst thing they’ve ever seen. It really helps with learning from that criticism.”
The Binary Bears final competition of this semester took place on Nov. 10. Andy Digh, associate professor of computer science and faculty advisor for the Binary Bears, sent an update to The Cluster after the competition concluded in Kennesaw State.
The Binary Bears returned to Mercer with three first-place medals.
“It was our highest showing in the event since 2007. We sent four teams of three and placed first, fourth, sixth and twenty-eighth out of 86 teams in the Southeast. We were ahead of competition from Wofford, College of Charleston, University of Georgia, Auburn University and the University of Alabama,” Digh said.
“It has been quite an exciting fall season for us! The breadth of majors on the teams is truly amazing,” Digh said. “Will Holmes, an English major with two computer programming courses under his belt, told me last night how thankful he was to attend and how much he truly enjoyed competing.”
The Binary Bears will continue to practice through problems in an effort to retain their winning streak next semester.
The next competition is scheduled to be held at Mercer Feb. 29, 2020.