MIT Crushes Harvard at Google Games

4/7/08Follow @wroush

Perhaps predictably, MIT students blew their Harvard counterparts out of the water at the Google Games, a day of engineering- and math-heavy challenges held Saturday at Google’s new offices in the heart of Kendall Square. Teams from MIT captured the top three slots in the competition, while the Harvard contingent had to console itself with the prize for the best display of team spirit.

But the day was more about having fun than it was about the old rivalry between the Crimson and the Engineers, or between the pilgrims and the beavers, or whatever the heck Harvard and MIT call themselves (I’m an alum of both schools and I still don’t really know what their official mascots are). Organized by the search giant’s university outreach and human resources offices, the event was designed to give local college students a taste of Google’s rambunctious atmosphere, as well as the opportunity to work on a few wicked-hard puzzles and engineering problems.

“Our goal is to do a ‘soft recruiting’ event—a day of fun and competition to get students away from their labs and their homework and get a sense of the Google culture,” said Ronner Lee, a university programs specialist in Google’s Mountain View, CA, headquarters, and the chief Googler at the event. The company, which has run similar events pitting Stanford students against Berkeley students and arraying teams at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign against each other, rounded up the 100-plus participants by sending invitations to the schools’ math and computer science departments.

I spent a few hours watching the teams work and cheering for both sides. During the initial, Jeopardy-style portion of the challenge, I felt quite proud of myself for knowing the answers to several geek-movie-trivia questions (or rather, the questions to the answers) that, surprisingly, stumped the callow Harvard and MIT youths. (Answer: Sting starred in this 1984 movie based on a Frank Herbert novel. Question: What is Dune? Answer: This 1985 movie was about two teenage nerds who build a perfect woman. Question: What is Weird Science?)

Puzzling over a geometry problem at the Google GamesBut as soon as the core of the competition got underway—an Amazing Race-style series of events, with the prizes going to the team that finished all the events in the shortest amounts of time, after all penalties and bonuses—I started to feel grateful that I’ll never have to take another calculus exam. The heart of the competition consisted of math-oriented puzzles devised by Google engineers. I vowed to Google’s PR people that I would not to reveal the puzzles’ details, since the company plans to use some of them again in future events. Suffice it to say that they required the ability to predict the output of computer programs written in three languages without actually running them, and to arrange the digits 1 through 7 in such a way that the answer was a multiple of 88—with the added complication that each number represented a room on a map and two numbers could be put together only if their rooms were adjacent.

Most of the MIT teams seemed to whiz through the first set of puzzles in a couple of hours. The Harvard teams were a bit slower.

“The puzzles are doable, but they take a while,” said Anna Hopper, a Harvard freshman. Hopper admitted that while she enjoyed puzzles, she was likely to major in government. She said she was at Google mainly to fill in for a sick friend. “We aren’t winning,” she said cheerfully.

The “athletics” portion of the Google GamesThe MIT teams had a slightly harder time with the “athletic” portion of the Google Games. I put “athletic” in quotes because this portion involved getting five strikes or spares in Wii bowling; walking around the room while balancing a plastic egg on a plastic spoon held in one’s mouth; bouncing a hacky sack five times without dropping it; skipping rope for 30 seconds; and doing 20 pushups and 50 crunches. While I was watching, one student actually had to ask what crunches were. (To be fair, I didn’t see whether he was from Harvard or MIT. But he had certainly spent too much time with his Xbox.)

For observers, the Lego portion of the competition was perhaps the most dramatic. Student teams were given identical bags full of Lego parts and told to build a gravity-powered trebuchet that would fling a toy rubber tire across an 8-foot gap into a dog-bowl-sized bucket. There’s nothing like seeing 23 groups of 18-to-22 year olds sitting on the carpet around big piles of colored blocks, arguing about velocity versus angle of release and how to brace the trebuchet arm so that it doesn’t fly off with the tire.

The rules allowed teams that missed the bucket after five tries to give up and take a 45-minute penalty. After watching some of the rickety contraptions fall apart after every shot, I felt certain that most teams would simply opt to take the penalty. And a few tried— but the Google staff encouraged the teams to persist, and before I had to leave I witnessed at least one successful shot.

An elegant Lego trebuchet at the Google GamesThe winning teams (who, I’m betting, all have Google interviews in their near futures) were as follows, according to Google:

1st Place: Statistical Zero Knowledge (MIT) – 2:07
2nd Place: Super Cow Power (MIT) – 2:15
3rd Place: Team Windsington (MIT) – 3:04
Team Spirit: Google Bomb (Harvard)

To my eyes, though, the real winner was Google, which got to impress more than a hundred potential future employees with its well-known commitment to fun and games (and lots of free food) as a stimulus to productive thinking.

I asked Aneesh Kulkarni, a Harvard junior whose team took home the award for the prettiest trebuchet, what he thought of Google after the day’s events. “It seems like an environment where they really care about making employees happy,” he said. Mission accomplished.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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