How ETH students established the first all-female Olympiad in Informatics

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The European Girls’ Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI) is a programming compet
The European Girls’ Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI) is a programming competition for young women. ETH students developed the concept to promote women in computer science. (Photograph: EGOI)

Next week, the first European Girls’ Olympiad in Informatics will take place in Zurich. The competition, which will have around 160 participants from 43 countries, is being organised by ETH students, who also came up with the original idea and are the driving force behind the event.

Stefanie Zbinden loves solving puzzles. Not just any puzzles though; preferably tricky tasks like those you’d find in computer science and mathematics. "It’s an incredible feeling when you spend a long time working on a problem and find an elegant solution at the end," she says.

Zbinden studies mathematics at ETH Zurich and chairs the committee in charge of organising the first European Girls’ Olympiad in Informatics (EGOI), which will be held in Zurich from 13 to 19 June 2021. She is particularly fascinated by algorithms, a discipline that belongs to both computer science and mathematics. An algorithm is a kind of procedural rule or computational strategy for representing a given problem in such a way that it can be solved in a manageable number of well-structured steps.

What Zbinden likes about computer science is that it gives you additional feedback using technology, which isn’t necessarily the case with mathematics. "When you arrive at your solution in maths, you tend to do your working out on paper. In computer science, you can program the algorithms on the computer," she explains.

The idea: Develop your own creative solutions

Organised as an programming competition just for girls, EGOI is all about problem-solving. Two five-hour exams will be held on 16 and 18 June, consisting of four tasks that participants must solve using algorithms they have developed themselves. Those who demonstrate outstanding logic and creativity will be awarded with the gold, silver or bronze medals. Around 160 participants from 43 countries have qualified to take part in EGOI.

Four secondary school students and their two supervisors, students at ETH, make up the Swiss team. The home team will be the only participants to do their programming in Zurich itself; the other teams will participate in EGOI as an online event due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

One of the Swiss contestants is Ema Skottova from the Kirchenfeld Gymnasium school in Bern. She’s just as familiar with the commute to ETH as she is with exam pressure. This year she is taking her school-leaving exams (Matura). Previously, she attended the ETH Math Youth Academy, a joint project hosted by the ETH Department of Mathematics and the NCCR SwissMAP aimed at secondary school students who enjoy the process of creative thinking in maths. It was in these classes that she learned how to do proofs, Skottova recalls. She loves the way of thinking that this requires.

Skottova enjoyed the same experience at the Swiss Olympiad in Informatics and the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad, participating in both these competitions last year and winning silver and bronze. Like Stefanie Zbinden, she compares computer science and mathematics to solving puzzles. Skottova loves the elegance with which logical arguments can be applied to solve and understand certain problems. "I relish the pure and the logical," she says. "That’s why I enjoy maths so much, and programming is a way I can apply it."

Now she wants to put her programming skills to the test at the Olympiad in Informatics. Unlike at school, in an Olympiad she will have to come up with her own way to find the solution.

The idea for the EGOI competition was born out of the fact that, on average, women account for less than 15 percent of the students who participate in the original Swiss Olympiad in Informatics. A group of committed young people with links to the Olympiad and ETH wanted to change that, so they created EGOI. "EGOI is pitched directly at young women. The aim is to encourage their interest in computer science by providing a platform for them to gain a sense of achievement and engage with like-minded people," explains Lara Gafner, who is involved in the competition in her capacity as communication officer for the umbrella Association of Swiss Scientific Olympiads. She studies History and Philosophy of Knowledge at ETH. Although not a programmer herself, she’s familiar with the related fields of philosophy, such as logic, and has participated in the Philosophy Olympiad.

ETH students develop EGOI concept

"The science Olympiads have been taking place for more than 60 years," Gafner says. "But EGOI is a new concept developed by ETH students. Our hope is that it will help encourage and promote women in computer science."

EGOI is based on the European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad (EGMO), held annually since 2012. In 2017, when EGMO was hosted by ETH and the University of Zurich, Stefanie Zbinden took part as head of the Swiss delegation. The event made a lasting impression on her: "EGMO was a really cool experience, which gave me the confidence to make my way in computer science and math. What made the difference was that I was part of a team and had the opportunity to exchange ideas about mathematics with other women," Zbinden recalls.

At other competitions, the two-time silver medalist found herself having to fight for respect as the only woman in a group of men. After the EGMO, an idea began to grow in Zbinden’s mind: there should be an Olympiad for young women in computer science. It started out as purely hypothetical, probably too big an undertaking, she thought. But about two years ago, the EGOI project gathered momentum when more ETH students got involved and together they were able to get the Swiss and international Science Olympiads on board. Today, there are nine ETH students, doctoral students and alumni on the organising committee. About 40 other people, including a professor, also support EGOI, and the Department of Computer Science (D’INFK) contributed 50,000 Swiss francs to the initiative. ETH Rector Sarah Springman will be at the opening ceremony, and ETH Professor of Computer Science Olga Sorkine-Hornung will appear at the closing awards ceremony on 19 June.

For Zbinden, one thing has now become crystal clear:

Florian Meyer