From the class to the journal - student contest leads to published results

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In the 21st century, design contests have emerged as a way to make rapid progress on tough computational problems. The million-dollar Netflix Prize, which sought to improve Netflix’s movie recommendation algorithm, is probably the most high-profile example. But similar, if lower-stakes, contests have addressed problems in computer vision, medical-data analysis, and weather prediction.

In 2012, two CSAIL PhDs in the lab of Professor Hari Balakrishnan hatched the idea of bringing that type of contest into the classroom. The next semester — spring 2013 — the graduate-level networking course that Balakrishnan taught featured a two-week research project in which 20 two-person student teams designed competing protocols for managing congestion in cellular networks.

That same spring, Balakrishnan’s research group was scheduled to present such a protocol — dubbed Sprout — at a major networking conference. So the prize for any team that could better Sprout’s performance was co-authorship of a paper describing both the contest and its results. Two teams of students — both consisting of undergraduates — are on the paper, which appeared in July in the Association of Computing Machinery’s Computer Communications Review.

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