The International Olympiad in Informatics, a competition for school students, has been going on for more than a quarter of a century. The idea for an informatics competition was originally conceived by the Bulgarian professor Blagovest Sendov, who first put forward the proposition to UNESCO back in 1987. The main goals of the event are to encourage children’s interest in computer science and to develop the IT syllabus on the school curriculum, and also to bring together talented students from all over the world so that they might share their knowledge and cultural experience. The Olympiad takes place in one of the participating countries, generally towards the end of summer, and lasts for eight days. The privilege of hosting the competition in 2016 was awarded to our country. From 12th to 19th August, teams from more than 80 countries will gather in Kazan, one of the most IT-orientated cities in the Russian Federation. The contest is being organised by the Ministry of Education and Science RF and the Ministry of Telecom and Mass Communications RF, the Ministry of Information and Communication RT and the Ministry of Education and Science RT, Kazan Federal University, as well as a number of other departments, companies and organisations.
“This is the first time an informatics olympiad of such a high level will take place in Russia,” says Pavel Sergomanov, Deputy Director of the Department of State Policy in the Field of General Education of the Ministry of Education and Science RF. “We have a lot to be proud of – ever since the competition’s inception in 1989, we have consistently delivered very impressive results on a par with traditional leaders like the USA, China and Taiwan. Interest in computer science at school level is also consistently high, and the number of students participating in the All-Russia Olympiad in Informatics continues to grow – these days more than 25,000 schoolchildren take part in these competitions all across the country. Also worth mentioning is how our students post consistently high marks in international programming competitions. All this is testament to the fact that we have an excellent tuition system and effective methods of teaching IT as a subject.
“Of course, any intellectual olympiad is a ‘high achievement sport’ in its own right, but it also acts as a massive stimulus to give a subject a wider appeal. According to statistics, roughly 40 per cent of Russian schoolchildren have taken part in at least one All-Russia Olympiad in a particular subject (and often in more than one). Naturally, not everyone reaches the latter stages, but any competition will build character, develop thinking faculties, improve speaking skills and broaden horizons while offering a chance to meet like-minded people, as well as follow the examples set by leaders and learn from those who finish victorious. Everyone knows that tasks set in the Olympiad go far beyond anything covered in a normal classroom, with a lot of additional extracurricular work in special classes required to learn how to solve them, but nothing is possible without basic tuition. And this means that an olympiad in any subject will have a real influence on education, no only in raising the bar, but also in encouraging students to master material, persuading teachers to seek out new, effective methods of teaching.”
According to Mr Sergomanov, events of this kind encourage schools to be more flexible and in tune with the demands and changes of the wider world. It is also completely in keeping with President Putin’s desire to develop complex measures designed to systematically update the general content of our education system, as discussed in the State Council in January of last year.
Incidentally, as a schoolboy the Deputy Director himself also took part in a mathematics olympiad in Khaborovsk Krai, claiming second place. The absolute winner was chosen at random, he says. However, there is no chance of final positions being allocated randomly at the international competitions – participants undergo rigorous training, including both internet rounds and also training sessions, psychological testing and much more, most of which beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. In particular, being able to touch type is incredibly important when tackling computer science questions. You could have a brilliant mind, but without the ability to touch type it will be all but impossible to match the front-runners. Competitors are therefore taught to use a keyboard at a very high level. In the same light, an excellent command of a foreign language can be integral, as without it, the question may be difficult to understand. The list goes on.
“The first Olympiad in Informatics to take place in the Soviet Union was held in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in 1988,” says Vladimir Kiryukhin, Chairman of the Central Methodical Commission on Informatics. “I recall it was barely three years after Soviet schools introduced the subject Basic Information and Computational Technology, and one year before the first International Olympiad was held in Bulgaria. From that moment, interest in computer science as a school subject in our country has stayed as strong as ever. I can say with complete confidence that the Olympiads not only gave many talented students the ability to shine and develop their abilities, but also had a very real influence on the development of the school computer science curriculum. For example, questions in Part C of the Unified State Exam in computer science are in many respects defined by Olympiad tasks, and the automated marking process, already long in use in informatics olympiads, is also beginning to be implemented both in schools and in the Unified State Exam.
It should come as no surprise that countries with a focus on the IT sector and which actively seek out gifted students and develop their skills are the countries which routinely get the best results at international olympiads. The Chinese system of developing raw talent has long been known, and their results at international competitions (and not just in informatics) speak for themselves. As far as our country is concerned, Russia is the only place in the world to hold events to discover and nurture gifted students on such a scale as the All-Russia Olympiad, which includes across the various subjects upwards of 5.5 million participants from the 5th to 11th classes from all over the Russian Federation.
Participants and winners of informatics olympiads go on to become top managers and heads of IT companies, university lecturers and scientists involved in cutting-edge projects in IT and other industries. This is helped by the fact that it is not just the eventual victors and prize-winners, those who have earned the right to attend university without exams, who have long known the career path they want to follow, but also many of the other contestants at various stages of the competition. They are hard workers, able to study and obtain knowledge while at school and motivated when they reach the world of work. Each of them will choose their area of professional expertise while still at school.
“Here, as with everything else, teachers play the most important part. They need to get children interested in the topic and organise extracurricular activities using materials from the school stage of the Olympiad,” asserts Mr Kiryukhin. “Every educational institution should offer children from the 5th-6th class onwards the chance to compete in an olympiad, should they so desire. Similar demands are in place across all subjects in the All-Russia Olympiad. This is the first step on the road to an Olympiad. Progress onto the municipal level gives children access to regional centres of additional education, which encourages the transition to a specialist school in the 7th class. Schools with a greater focus on mathematics and computer science offer additional optional lessons. Many institutes of higher education also offer extramural distance courses for these children, organising additional tuition over the internet. Many regions run winter and summer IT schools. The Kazan Olympiad is still over half a year away, but preparations do not stop, even for a second. We will get right behind our team!”
The competition in numbers
Overall, Chinese students have won 107 medals, including 72 gold, while Russians (including those competing for the USSR) have 104, of which 55 were gold. After China and Russia come Poland (97 medals, 34 gold), Romania (95 medals, 28 gold), Bulgaria (93 medals, 23 gold), Korea Republic (92 medals, 33 gold) and USA (90 medals, 42 gold).
Training resources for Informatics Olympiad participants – odeforces.com
Sample questions for the International Olympiad in Informatics – stats.ioinformatics.org/tasks
Sample questions from recent regional and final stages – www.rosolymp.ru
XXVIII International Olympiad in Informatics official site – ioi2016.ru
Olympiad programming tasks – algolist.manual.ru/olimp
IOI tasks can be broken down into three groups:
“Batch Tasks”, which are solved by writing a program to generate an output file to a given input file;
“Reactive Tasks”, which are also solved by writing a program, but instead of reading input data from the input file and writing the result in an output file, this program should exchange data with another program defined in the task;
“Output Tasks”, which are not solved by a program but by output data files corresponding to the given input files set out by the task.