Simpson Students Excel In Competitions That Test Computer, Creative, Math Skills

Simpson athletes participate in 19 sports, but there’s another level of competition that takes place off the field and the courts.

And Simpson students are excelling at them.

Two recent competitions provide the proof. In one, a three-student team from Simpson defeated 460 students representing teams from 61 schools to capture first place in HackISU.

In another, a Simpson team defeated almost all of the liberal arts colleges in Iowa, as well as much larger institutions, in a computer programming contest.

Simpson is obviously doing something right. What is it?


The mission: Use creativity and technology skills to build the best product – or, as one student said, “cool and useful things.”

The time allowed: a mostly sleepless 36 hours.

The team: Chris Colahan, a senior from Shawnee, Kan., majoring in computer science and mathematics; Nate Hayes, a senior from Adair majoring in computer science; and Josh Dietrich, a sophomore from Pleasant Hill majoring in computer science and computer information services.

Their product: A trash can.

HACKISU, held at Iowa State University, is a hackathon – as in life hack, not hack into a computer.

Colahan explains Team Simpson’s product: “Our trash can senses the level of trash by using a sonar device. We also have a camera that can detect when people pass by the trash can. We send this data to our server. The website then takes this data and shows a map of all the trash cans and a heat map of the traffic around the trash cans.

“We also send text messages and emails when a trash can gets too full and we have other graphs to show how often cans are changed and such.”

(See a video about their creation: )

As the event progressed, the team felt confident about their chances.

“We always had the idea that if we got everything running like we originally wanted it to that we could have a product that could potentially win. However, the second night when everything actually started coming together how it was supposed to and things were working was definitely when I started thinking we had a real chance.”

That doesn’t mean it was easy.

“We got different components working at different points in time,” Hayes said. “By the time we got everything connected and ready to present was about 34.5 hours into the competition, so we had about an hour and a half to test stuff and prepare the presentation.”

The awards are divided into two categories. The secondary awards are given to “Most innovative hack” and “Best use of machine vision,” among others. The Simpson students considered themselves favorites for at least one of those awards.

They were wrong. They struck out.

Hayes had a personal streak on the line. He has won awards at all five hackathons he has participated in.

“I thought we had lost,” he said. “I slunk deeper into my chair, and I felt a wave of shame wash over me. The thought of having to go back and tell everyone that we lost sickened me.”

It was time for the top awards. Again, as other schools were named, the Simpson students prepared for the worst. There was only one award left: First place.

The winner: Simpson College.

“We were surprised and overjoyed,” Colahan said.

Said Hayes: “My heart pounded in my chest….we won! This was the first time I broke fourth place. It was incredible. My streak stayed alive!”

Why do Simpson students perform well in contests like this?

“To win a hackathon against a large number of competitors requires a high level of performance across a range of different subjects,” said Mark Brodie, associate professor of computer science. “Simpson teaches these skills in its curriculum, and hackathons provide a way of using them to create something useful, as well as make connections with other people in the field.”

Colahan offers this: “Communication skills, planning, critical thinking and conflict management are all very important parts in software projects. These skills are especially important when everyone on the team is lacking in sleep. I feel that Simpson excels at introducing these skills into its courses.”

ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest 

The mission: Use teamwork and computer programming skills to solve 10 problems.

The time allowed: Five hours.

The team: Elisa Wildy, a senior from Omaha who is majoring in actuarial science and computer science; Keegan Lampareck, a junior from Mount Vernon majoring in computer science and computer information systems; and Colahan, who also competed in HACKISU.

“You are solving these problems pretty much non-stop,” Wildy said. “It gets pretty tiring toward the end. I would say a lot of people can’t think very well toward the end. The problems are much more difficult than what you would work on in a classroom setting, so it’s a much higher level of thinking to solve them.”

The contest is structured by dividing the world into regions. Each regional is held at a multiple different sites on the same day. Simpson competed against schools in the Midwest and Canada.

“The problems are very hard, requiring mathematical reasoning, problem-solving and programming skills,” Brodie said.

The team from Simpson finished in 41st place, but third among liberal arts colleges in Iowa. In addition, they defeated much larger universities in their region.

“I was very surprised that we solved the amount of problems that we did and that we finished so high among the Iowa schools,” Wildy said. “We definitely felt a sense of relief knowing that we did that well.”

Why do Simpson students perform so well in these kinds of competitions? Wildy has a theory:

I believe we have a strong group of students that like to do these types of things. I think these contests are very well advertised by our professors as well as other students. Students will promote these contests, saying how much they like doing them, in turn making other students want to participate in these things. Also, we have a strong support from our professors to do well. They will help us practice and give us any advice or help when we need it. Also, I feel as though Simpson students are highly well-rounded with a liberal arts education. We enjoy these competitions that challenge us in different ways and have us think about things other than the basics.”