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Program in Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking (PACT) at Princeton University - Our Review

Embarking on a journey in STEM programs holds immense value for students aspiring to enhance their college profiles. The experiences gained fostered skill development and significantly contributed to academic growth. Participating in programs like the Program in Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking (PACT) is particularly beneficial, offering a unique opportunity for students to delve deep into theoretical computer science. This blog aims to provide an insightful exploration of PACT, shedding light on its structure, curriculum, costs, eligibility, and application process. Furthermore, we will delve into the program's distinctive features, including its expansion into Asia, the year-round participation option for advanced graduate students, and the dual-group setup comprising both novice high school students and experienced undergraduates.


What does PACT's curriculum look like?

PACT's curriculum is designed to cater to two distinct groups of participants.

Group I primarily consists of high school students with limited exposure to theoretical computer science. Their journey begins with an exploration of discrete mathematics, systematic counting, and methods of proof. As the program progresses, students delve into probability, combinatorics, advanced permutations, and combinations. The focus shifts to more theoretical and fundamental aspects of probability, covering topics such as conditional probability, independent events, and random variables.


Time permitting, Group I may also explore algorithms, including asymptotic analysis and basic algorithms like Euclidean GCD. Throughout the summer, guest lecturers expose participants to diverse fields within computer science, such as computational geometry, cryptography, the probabilistic method, and planar graph coloring.


On the other hand, Group II comprises students with prior PACT experience or equivalent knowledge. Their responsibilities include mentoring Group I, grading homework, and creating challenging exam problems. The curriculum for Group II alternates between approximation algorithms and randomized algorithms, with guest lecturers contributing specialized topics to further enrich their understanding.


How is the PACT program structured?

PACT is scheduled to run from June 24 to July 26, 2024. In recognition of the global nature of education, the program includes a virtual component conducted through platforms such as Zoom, Gradescope, and Discord. Additionally, an in-person component is held on the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) campus, providing participants with a balanced and comprehensive learning experience. The daily sessions commence at 9:30 AM EDT, accommodating various time zones for virtual attendees. Notably, including an in-person option enhances the overall program flexibility, ensuring students can choose the mode that aligns with their preferences and circumstances.


What are the associated fees, and is there financial support?

Understanding the financial considerations of prospective participants, PACT has transparently outlined its fee structure. For virtual participation, the program fee is $1,925, with a slightly higher fee of $2,025 for international students. In-person attendance incurs a fee of $3,950, with additional costs for housing and related expenses. Recognizing the potential financial constraints, PACT is committed to providing support, and applicants are encouraged to apply regardless of financial considerations. Financial assistance is available, with the assurance that qualified students will be kept from being turned away due to monetary constraints. 


How do I apply for the program?

Prospective participants can access the application form on the official PACT website. The application deadline is structured as rolling admissions, with full consideration guaranteed for those received before March 10, 2024. The application requirements are comprehensive, including a statement of interest in PDF format, an unofficial transcript, and two letters of recommendation. The latter should be from a Math teacher and another from a Math or Science teacher or a guidance counselor. Notably, the application process is designed to be accessible and accommodating, with direct contact between the program and recommending teachers, streamlining the submission of these essential components.


What are the Pros and Cons to consider for this program?


Pros

1. Engage in diverse learning paths

PACT's dual-group structure caters to many participants, from high school students with limited exposure to theoretical computer science to experienced undergraduates and graduate students. This diversity in backgrounds fosters a collaborative learning environment where participants can share their insights and experiences. The program's comprehensive curriculum, covering topics from discrete mathematics to advanced algorithms, ensures that participants receive a well-rounded education in theoretical computer science.


2. The program is accessible 

    The inclusion of both virtual and in-person components enhances the accessibility of PACT. The virtual sessions conducted through Zoom, Gradescope, and Discord allow students worldwide to participate without geographical constraints. Simultaneously, the in-person option at the UPenn campus offers a more immersive and traditional learning experience. This flexibility accommodates a broader range of student preferences and circumstances, contributing to the program's inclusivity.


3. There is financial support

    PACT's commitment to financial support underscores its dedication to creating an inclusive educational environment. The transparent fee structure and the assurance that qualified students will not be turned away due to financial constraints reflect a proactive approach to accessibility. This commitment ensures that deserving students, regardless of their financial background, can benefit from the program, contributing to a more diverse and enriching learning community.


Cons

1. There is an intensive time commitment

Given the ambitious curriculum and the depth of the topics covered, participants in PACT may find the program demanding in terms of time commitment. The extensive content and mentorship responsibilities for Group II participants could lead to a rigorous schedule. This intensity might challenge individuals balancing other academic or personal commitments, potentially limiting the program's accessibility for those with tight schedules.


2. Limited exploration of additional STEM Fields

While PACT provides a comprehensive exploration of theoretical computer science, the program's focus on algorithmic and combinatorial thinking may limit exposure to a broader array of STEM fields. Although guest lectures touch upon various computer science disciplines, participants seeking a more interdisciplinary experience may find the program's emphasis on theoretical computer science restrictive. This limitation could impact the program's suitability for those with broader STEM interests.


Should you do it? - Here's our review of the PACT program

Having delved into the intricacies of the Program in Algorithmic and Combinatorial Thinking, PACT is a well-structured and inclusive platform for students passionate about theoretical computer science. The dual-group setup, with distinct curricula tailored to novice and experienced participants, provides a balanced and engaging learning environment. The virtual and in-person components further showcase PACT's adaptability and commitment to accommodating diverse learning preferences. The financial support initiatives and rolling admissions highlight the program's dedication to accessibility, ensuring that deserving students are not hindered by monetary constraints. Aspiring participants are encouraged to consider PACT as a valuable stepping stone in their STEM education journey, where they can enhance their academic profiles and cultivate a deep understanding and appreciation for algorithmic and combinatorial thinking.


However, prospective participants should be mindful of certain considerations. The intensive time commitment required for the program, owing to its ambitious curriculum and potential mentorship responsibilities, may pose challenges for individuals juggling multiple commitments. The program's exclusive focus on theoretical computer science may limit exploration into broader STEM fields, potentially impacting its suitability for those with interdisciplinary interests. Additionally, virtual participants might find it challenging to fully replicate the in-person experience, potentially impacting the depth of their engagement with the program. Despite these considerations, the strengths of PACT in providing a rich learning environment and fostering inclusivity make it a compelling choice for those seeking a profound dive into theoretical computer science.


If you’re looking to build a project/research paper in the field of AI & ML, consider applying to Veritas AI! 


Veritas AI is founded by Harvard graduate students. Through the programs, you get a chance to work 1-1 with mentors from universities like Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and more to create unique, personalized projects. In the past year, we had over 1000 students learn AI & ML with us. You can apply here!


One other option – the Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in pre-college programs focused on history, consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also, check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.


Tenzing Dolma is a Masters student specializing in research following the Nechung Oracle and the historical, religious, and cognitive approaches to its presence. She has a bachelors in Neuroscience from Loyola University Chicago and is currently completing her graduate studies at Columbia University. She hopes to help students find their passions through access to programs and organizations the same way she found hers!


Image Source: Princeton University logo


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