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Student’s coding solution solves sports scheduling issue

Courtesy of Governor Asa Hutchinson

Today I’d like to talk about the 16-year-old student at Mountain Home High who amazed teachers, coaches, and athletic directors throughout the 6A West football conference when he wrote a computer program that solved a scheduling dilemma that had stumped all of them.

Mountain Home Athletic Director Mitch Huskey said the problem sounds simple, but it’s not. With the Mountain Home Bombers moving to 6A, the conference now has nine teams – an odd number – that will compete in an eight-game season. To be fair, the ideal schedule would pit each of the nine teams against every other team, and no team would travel two weeks in a row.

MHHS Junior Emmanuel Westra stepped in when his AP Calculus AB teacher Garrett Rucker couldn’t solve a scheduling problem for the 6A-West football conference. Westra solved the problem in a few hours and developed a program to help others in the future. Photo by Mountain Home Public Schools.

At Mountain Home, Mr. Huskey, who has been athletic director for six years, searched the internet for a program that would create schedules. Then he tried it himself and gave up at Week Six. Then he recruited a teacher of advanced math, Garrett Rucker, who couldn’t solve the problem either and tagged computer science teacher J.R. Bergenstock, who also came up short. Athletic directors at the eight other schools couldn’t find the answer either.

Coach Huskey, Mr. Rucker, and Mr. Bergenstock handed the problem off to Emmanuel Westra, a student who had recently moved with his family from Colorado to Arkansas.

The problem didn’t intimidate Emmanuel, who put pencil to paper. He ciphered on the school bus and at home. He broke for supper, and he had solved it long before lights out.

As Jennifer Seaman wrote in her story on the school’s web site, in the course of an afternoon and evening that included a bowl of soup, a high school junior solved a problem that had befuddled college-educated, math-savvy adults.

Although Emmanuel wrote code for the scheduling program, he found the solution with a pencil on paper. Once he knew the algorithm worked, he wrote the code and tested it on his computer.

Coach Huskey noted that Emmanuel doesn’t play football, and Emmanuel admits he doesn’t attend football games. He simply saw a problem and solved it. Emmanuel and Mr. Bergenstock are attempting to copyright the algorithm, which can be used for scheduling in many areas, not just football.

Emmanuel Westra’s experience adds to the evidence that computer coding is helpful in a variety of areas. Coding is more than creating computer games. Doctors use computers in robotic surgery. Mechanics use computers in diagnosing and repairing engines. Now athletic conferences have an easy way to create a schedule, whether there are nine teams or nine-hundred teams. But it all starts with a coder.

Since I took office in 2015, I have led efforts to make computer science an intricate part of our education system. As we enlarged the program, we added stipends to recruit instructors to certify to teach computer science. Mr. Bergenstock is one of those who joined the ranks. He taught music in Fort Smith for many years. Mountain Home High didn’t need a music teacher when he applied there, so administrators asked him to teach computer science. He accepted the challenge, and Emmanuel Westra is happy he did.

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