Students Google competitively for cash

By
Friday, October 10, 2008

Andrew Bergmanson ’11 draws stares from his competitors as he pushes open the double glass doors and enters the silent room. They might feel threatened by the shamrock-green streak in his otherwise black hair – an “intimidating good luck charm” he got over the weekend – but most just seem amused by his lateness.

“I was making tea,” he says, thermos in hand. “I can’t come here without my tea.”

Knuckles crack around the room as he takes his place among the 40 or so competitors. All share a common goal with Bergmanson – to search and destroy.

Search the Internet, that is, and destroy the competition; Bergmanson is a competitor in the Digital Literacy Contest – “a high speed battle of the minds to find information online.”

Using the computer as a “cognitive prosthetic,” says contest developer and Purdue University graduate Daniel Poynter, competitors scour the Web to answer obscure questions chosen by Poynter for the cunning strategies required to solve them.

“If Napoleon Dynamite were here,” Poynter says, “he’d say something like, ‘Chicks dig Internet skills.'”

Competitive research

As the seconds left before the start of the contest tick away on a projected virtual countdown, Poynter surveys the John D. Rockefeller Library battlefield. Competitors of varying ages and concentrations have turned out for the $200 prize awarded to the winner.

“Who thinks they’re going to finish in the top 10 percent?” he says.

Bergmanson and a small handful of others raise their hands. He has practiced questions and trained with databases in the days leading up to the Wednesday competition, and he already knows all the rules: 30 questions in 30 minutes, organized by subject and varying in difficulty and point value.

“I’m pretty confident,” he says. “As long as I have my tea I’ll be fine.”

As the contest begins, the sound of fingers tapping on keyboards fills the room, but Bergmanson stares blankly at the first question, which asks him to “calculate the percentage of U.S. energy consumption in both 2003 and 2007 which was made possible by fossil fuels” for the maximum five points.

He skips to the second question, a one-pointer that asks for the name of the youth organization founded by Gov. Donald Carcieri ’65. Bergmanson makes creative use of a political resource Web site to answer correctly: “Academy Children’s Science Center.” It’s a solid start for the political science concentrator.

But beside Bergmanson is Music Librarian Ned Quist, who is playing to his strengths and has skipped to a question about an article in a Swedish academic journal. He uses his intimate knowledge of the library’s databases to answer quickly and confidently.

The second-floor computer cluster bursts with silent activity as the competitors lock onto their screens, their hands flitting across their keyboards.

“We’ve never seen this room so quiet,” says Head of Reference and Research Services Ron Fark. “And this used to be the Absolute Quiet Room.”

‘Bicycle for the mind’

A competitive research environment is often a turnoff to students in academic fields, but Poynter has found a niche in making competitive research a sport. The 21-year-old is president of Global Networked-Intelligence Contests, a young company he started with three current Purdue students.

For him, the contest is not just a test of ability, but a new way of looking at the relationship between computers and the mind.

“Steve Jobs explains it better than I do,” he says, pulling up a YouTube video of the Apple Inc. founder. Jobs recalls a study he read about in Scientific American that looked at efficiency of locomotion across different species and found that the condor vastly outperformed the human being.

“It was not too proud of a showing for the crown of creation,” Jobs says. “But then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle … a human on a bicycle blew the condor away.”

To Poynter, as to Jobs, the computer is a “bicycle for the mind.” GNIC’s mission is to create a “Tour de France of Internet-enabled minds.”

Brown is the fourth school to purchase Poynter’s contest, which Fark says doubles as an advertisement for the library and its extensive – and expensive – resources.

“It’s all an awareness thing,” Fark says, adding that the funds for the competition came from the library’s outreach budget. “It used to be said that the library is the heart of the institution, but the Web has taken things in all different directions.”

Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources David Stern adds that more skills will be developed in the future, with the goal of fostering “mature information fluency.”

“One of the selling points to universities is that they spend millions of dollars on databases but nobody uses them,” Poynter says. “A third of the questions require participants to use databases.”

But for Poynter, the contest is more of a consciousness-enhancer than a consciousness-raiser. His degree in philosophy influences his explanation of the contest’s objectives and a phrase in his company’s name, “networked-intelligence.”

“I don’t remember my dad’s phone number, but when I need it I flip open my phone and look for it,” he says. “It’s not unreasonable to consider it an extension of my memory, my nervous system.”

The Internet, then, is the ultimate “cognitive prosthetic.” And in the information age, “the ability to wield it should be right up there with IQ tests and the SAT,” he says.

A (data)base-less strategy

In the Rock, Bergmanson and his prosthesis aren’t getting along. More than halfway through the allotted 30 minutes, he is staring at a dense spreadsheet of information on nuclear energy use by state. He’s spent almost 10 minutes entering calculations into Google.

Quist, the librarian, isn’t faring too well either. He has a frustrated look on his face as he scans another database and scribbles some information down on a notepad beside him. His pencil slips out of his hand onto the ground and he pounds his fist on the table – precious seconds have been lost.

Other competitors seem to be using their time more efficiently. A student behind Bergmanson watches YouTube in one window while he searches the database ProQuest in another.

By the time the contest draws to a close, Bergmanson and Quist look flustered.

“I think my only chance is if everybody else completely screwed up,” Bergmanson says.

“I probably got four points,” Quist adds.

The victors are Michael Fruta ’09 and Catherine McCarthy ’11, who edge out Herald Business Staffer Ben Xiong ’11 to tie for first and split the prize money. Their scores of 33 points are the most ever scored in the contest, Poynter says, placing them ahead of their peers at the University of Florida, Indiana University and Purdue.

But for all the effort put into the contest to focus on database usage, the winning strategy appears to have been no strategy at all.

“I don’t know how to use the databases,” says McCarthy, a neuroscience concentrator. “I just used Google.”

Fruta and McCarthy both say they did not prepare for the contest and cherry picked the easy questions first, earning quick points before trying the more difficult ones.

“I thought I might have (had) the wrong strategy,” Fruta says.

So how did he win? Fruta, a gender and sexuality studies concentrator, smiles and credits “the free time and independence I had from my concentration.”

“Oh, and I ate at the Ratty before this,” he says. “I don’t usually do that.”