Reema Saffarini talks to the high school students who were rigorously tested before four were chosen to represent the country

The International Olympics, and a chance to take part, is the lifelong dream of many athletes around the world. The chance to represent your country and compete with world champions is a thrilling thought.

This exciting rush of adrenaline is what four high school students from the UAE will experience at the International Olympiad in Informatics (IOI).

To be held in Poland this month, the IOI is an annual international computer science competition for talented senior high school students.

The four students have also participated in the Arabian Olympiad in Informatics (AIO), held in Syria recently.

How did they all start?

"It started last year when senior high school students from around the UAE were nominated by their schools to join the Computer Programming Summer Programme, organised by the Ministry of Education and Youth.

"After sitting for exams in mathematics, physics and English, 30 students were chosen to join the camp," said Faisal Ahmad, a grade 12 student.

"Students were tested throughout the programme. Their number dropped to 11 then to six," he said.

Ahmad was with five of his classmates at the Etisalat Academy where training sessions were being held for them.

The six students finished more than 200 hours of computer programming. The curriculum included basic programming, differentials, data structure, dynamics and algorithms.

"In the past two weeks, they have been solving computer programming problems online," said Dr Sa'ad Harous, chairperson of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Sharjah. Dr Harous was appointed to train the students.

Six enter the finals

The six students took an exam after that and four were chosen to represent the UAE in the IOI.

"Yousuf Fahd [a high school graduate now] participated last year in the IOI; so he was chosen for his experience. On the other hand, Majid Al Mansour, Ahmad Mahmoud and Omar Mohammad were chosen for their high scores," said Dr Harous.

"The training we are getting is tough. We sit for six to eight hours daily to work on our programming problems, which is not very easy," said Mahmoud, a grade 11 student.

Fahd, on the other hand, said that the training period itself is not enough. "We need to train more. There is so much to learn and to do," he said.

The programme proved to be a challenge for the students. "Before we joined the camp, we knew nothing about programming," said Ammar Al Marzouqi, a grade 12 student.

The curriculum in government schools does not include programming. "We just study mathematics and physics, which is why they tested us in these subjects. They were the closest to programming," he said.

Al Marzouqi added that many of the students who first joined were not serious about their participation, which sometimes proved to be a waste of time.

The programme took place during the school year. Students would gather at Etisalat Academy every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for the sessions.

"Because of the time constraints, I believe there should be a better screening process for students instead of wasting the time of those who are interested in the programme and those who are not," Al Marzouqi said.

Another issue Dr Harous pointed out was that the IOI competition is conducted in English.

"The students here are good in English. Still, they can build on that. Strengthening the English language is important," he said.

Translation services are usually offered during the competition, but "that has caused lots of confusion in the past", Fahd added.

However, the training and experience the students are gaining will not only help them in the IOI, but will also help make their career dreams come true.

"I want to start my own computer programming company. I want to start a society of programmers in the UAE," said Mahmoud.

"I want to study electronics engineering," said Ahmad. "I want to get a scholarship in MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] to study computer science," said Fahd.

Guard against too much ambition

However, these ambitious students must guard against the possibility of losing sight of their goals.

"The problem is that many students join training camps for a year and then stop," said Fahd.

"Once you learn programming you should not stop. It is about continuity."

Dr Harous added that programming is like learning a language.

"You'll forget it if you stop using it. Many students stopped coming back to the programme because they were not chosen to participate in the IOI the first time.

"Students have to keep in mind that this camp should not only be about the international competition, but about building students' characters and helping them see the career possibilities open to them."

After finishing the programme, students will be given certificates from the University of Sharjah for their participation and achievements.

Launch of programme

The Ministry of Education and Youth launched the Computer Programming Training Programme in 2002. In the beginning, students in grades 10 and 12 were chosen.

This year, the door was open to students in grade nine. Participating students should be UAE national males with an accumulated average of 85 per cent or more in physics, mathematics and English.