2-Day Computing Workshop

A Two-Day Lab-Based Introduction

to Computer Science



This section provides a basic description of the discipline of computer science and outlines this lab-based, two-day introductory workshop.

About Computer Science

Computers are useful, because they can help us solve problems. The discipline of computer science studies all elements of the process of using computers to solve these problems.

Unfortunately, popular culture sometimes associates characteristics to computing that are misleading. Here are two examples:

  1. At a technical level, the term "programming" refers to the mechanics of writing down instructions in a format that computers can utilized. That is, programming is a mechanism for specifying algorithms in a specific setting. In looking over the range of problem-solving activities listed above, such programming is only one small part of an overall process. Many computing professionals write computer programs (sets of instructions), but this is only one small part of the task. As an analogy, historians use English (or another language) to write about their ideas. Writing English sentences effectively, therefore, is an important skill for historians, but we would not think of the study of history as focusing on English composition. Similarly, computing professionals write algorithms in specific languages, but the focus typically is on broader issues related to problem solving. Popular culture, however, often portrays programming as the major element of computing.

  2. Computer science is the traditional name given to the discipline (at least in the United States), but even the name is somewhat misleading. In fact, in our studies, we rely on the tools and techniques from a number of other disciplines -- the scientific method is only part of the picture. From mathematics, we take proof techniques, formal language for describing problems and solutions, and even core ideas. From science, we take experimental techniques. From engineering, we take techniques for designing and constructing things. From psychology and the social sciences, we take techniques for understanding the relationship of our work to human endeavors. Overall, the discipline of computer science involves a much wider range of activities than the name suggests. However, we're stuck with the name and popular views of what it entails.

About This Experience

The primary goal of this two-day laboratory experience is to give you a sense of what it means to do computer science. We'll carefully specify some problems, design some algorithms to solve them, implement them in the programming language Scheme, and evaluate them experimentally.

Today we'll focus on some background ideas. We'll start by writing an algorithm for an everyday problem. We'll continue by looking at a traditional and well-studied problem in computer science, that of putting a list of things in order. We'll spend a little time working with the basics of Scheme. We'll conclude by reflecting on what we've done today.

Tonight you'll have the opportunity to read some more formal descriptions of some common sorting algorithms in preparation for tomorrow's lab. You'll also reflect on what you've done today.

Tomorrow, we'll consider these sorting algorithms and some related algorithms in more depth. We'll be doing a good deal of experimental analysis and also look at some related design and theory principles.

Approximate Syllabus

First Day

Introduction [10 minutes]
An introduction to computer science and to the labs, given in Sam's traditional (lecture + discussion + recitation) format.
Exercises 1: PBJ Algorithm and 2: PBJ Algorithm, Revised [30 minutes]
Students write an algorithm (instructions) for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The instructor tries to follow the instructions as a computer might. Students try again. We reflect on common algorithm components.
Exercises 3:Designing A Sorting Algorithm and 4: Designing a Second Sorting Algorithm [30 minutes]
Students write algorithms to sort a collection of books/CDS/etc.
Exercise 5: Starting Scheme [40 minutes]
Students log in to MathLAN workstations and play with some Scheme basics.
Reflection [10 minutes]
Students reflect on what they've learned so far.


Review: Today's material
Scan through the handouts that correspond to today's discussion and your notes from the discussion.
Read: Some Standard Sorting Algorithms

Second Day

Review [10 minutes]
Students ask Sam questions. Sam asks students questions.
Exercise 6: Comparing Algorithms [10 minutes]
We'll approach this exercise as a discussion question.
Exercise 7: Selection Sort [30 minutes]
Students run and test an implementation of selection sort. Students also experimentally determine a formula for the running time of selection sort.
Exercise 8: Formalizing Requirements [20 minutes]
Using discussion format, students work to come up with a formal definition for what it means to remove a particular element from a list, as in selection sort.
Exercise 9: Comparing Sorting Algorithms [40 minutes]
Students experimentally compare three sorting algorithms.
Reflection [10 minutes]
Students reflect on what they've learned over the two days.

If There is Extra Time

Exercise 10: Finding the Largest Value
Working from a Scheme procedure to find the smallest value in a list, students build a Scheme procedure to find the largest value in a list. They then generalize to find the best value in a list. We'll do this exercise as a group.

Day One

Exercise: A Sandwich Algorithm

Write a set of instructions for making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Assume that the person you're writing instructions for is fairly clueless (e.g., an ivory tower professor, a computer programmer, a politician, or whatever group to whom you assign little common sense).

Exercise: A Revised Sandwich Algorithm

Given your experience of dealing with a simulated clueless person, write a set of instructions for making N peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, where N is a non-negative integer. That is, the person should be able to follow these instructions to make 1, 10, 5, or even 0 sandwiches. You can assume that the person has enough supplies to make N sandwiches and that the person can count.

The Parts of an Algorithm

As you may have noted, there are some common aspects to algorithms. That is, there are techniques that we use in many of the algorithms we write. It is worthwhile to think about these algorithm parts because we can rely on them when we write new algorithms. Common parts of algorithms include

Variables: Named Values

As we write algorithms, we like to name things. Sometimes we use long names, such as the piece of bread in your left hand. Sometimes, we use shorter names, such as bread-left. As we start to write more formal algorithms, we may explicitly say that we're using names.

Parameters: Named Inputs

Many algorithms work on data that are presented to the algorithm. For example, our PBJ algorithm should work no matter what kind of bread or peanut butter we give to the algorithm. That algorithm also requires that we give it bread and peanut butter. Similarly, an algorithm to find a name in the phone book might take the name and the phone book as input values. We call such input values parameters.

Conditionals: Handling Different Conditions

At times, our algorithms have to account for different conditions, doing different things depending on those conditions. In our PBJ algorithm, we might check whether the jar of peanut butter is open or what kind of lid is on the jelly jar. We call such operations conditionals. They typically take either the form

if some condition holds
           then do something

of the more complex form

if some condition holds
           then do something
           otherwise do something else

At times, we need to decide between more than two possibilities.


At times, our algorithms require us to do something again and again. In our PBJ algorithm, we may have had to turn the twisty-tie again and again until it was untwisted. In our many-sandwiches algorithm, we made one sandwich again and again. We call this technique repetition. Repetition takes many forms. We might do work until we've reached a desired state.

           some action
until some condition holds

We might continue work as long as we're in some state.

           some action
while some condition holds

We might repeat an action a fixed number of times.

           some action
N times

You can probably think of other forms of repetition.

Subroutines: Named Helper Algorithms

Many algorithms require common actions for their operation. For example, to make N sandwiches, you benefit from knowing how to make one sandwich. To make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, it helps to know how to spread something on bread. We can write additional algorithms for these common actions and use them as part of our broader algorithm. We can also use them in other algorithms. We call these helper algorithms subroutines.

Recursion: Helping Yourself

As strange as it may seem, we sometimes find it useful to define an algorithm in terms of itself. In particular, we can have an algorithm deal with a large or complex input by using itself as a helper with a smaller or less complex input.

Consider the following example

To make N peanut butter and jelly sandwiches
  If N is 0 then             conditional
    Celebrate, you're done!
    Make one PBJ sandwich    subroutine
    Make N-1 PBJ sandwiches  recursion

We call this technique recursion. Mastering recursion is one of the key steps on your path to becoming a computer scientist.

A helpful way to think about recursion: Every time you use a subroutine, you hand both the input and the instructions for the algorithm to a friend. That friend executes the algorithm and hands the result back to you. It shouldn't matter whether the algorithm you give your friend is a different one than you're using or the same one.

Exercise: Designing a Sorting Algorithm

Write an algorithm that tells someone how to put a collection of CDs in alphabetical order by title. You may find it useful to design additional algorithms to solve parts of the problem.

Exercise: Designing Another Sorting Algorithm

Write an algorithm that tells someone how to put a list of numbers in order from smallest to largest. Your algorithm should use a different strategy than your sort CDs algorithm. Once again, you may find it useful to design additional algorithms to solve parts of the problem.

Exercise: An Introduction to Scheme

Getting Started in the MathLAN

Please don't be intimidated! Although this lab contains many details which may seem overwhelming at first, these mechanics will become familiar rather quickly. To help the process along, you might want to spend some time on your own before the next class, working through the lab a few times, exploring various buttons, and experimenting with options. Feel free to talk to the instructor or with a MathLAN User Consultant if you have questions or want additional help!

Logging In

Short Version:

To use any of the computers in the Mathematics Local-Area Network, one must log in, identifying oneself by giving a user name and a password. You will have received a MathLAN user name and password from the instructor if you did not already have one. If you have not received a MathLAN user name and password, or if you have forgotten either one, please tell your instructor.

When it is not in use, a MathLAN workstation displays a login screen with a space into which one can type one's user name and, later, one's password. (If the workstation's monitor is dark, move the mouse a bit and the login screen will appear.) To begin, move the mouse onto any part of the box containing the login box. Type in your user name, in lower-case letters, and press the <Enter> key. The login screen will be redrawn to acknowledge your user name and to ask for your password; type it into the space provided and press <Enter>. (Because no one else should see your password, it is not displayed on screen as you type it in.)

At this point, a computer program that is running on the workstation consults a table of valid user names and passwords. If it does not find the particular combination that you have supplied, it prints a brief message saying that the attempt to log in was unsuccessful and then returns to the login screen -- inviting you to try again. Consult the instructor or the system administrator if your attempts to log in are still unsuccessful.

The Linux/Gnome Window Environment

Short Version:

Once you have logged in, a control panel will appear at the bottom of the screen. Some other windows also may be visible in other parts of your screen. All of these areas are managed by a special program, called a windowing system. On MathLAN, login chores and other administrivia are handled by a program or operating system, called Linux, and the windowing system is called Gnome. (While the Linux operating system supports many languages and environments, you may be interested to know that the Linux/Gnome windowing system itself is written in Scheme.)


Short Version:

Many of the fundamental ideas of computer science are best learned by reading, writing, and executing small computer programs that illustrate them. One of our most important tools, therefore, is a computer program designed specifically to make it easier to read, write, and execute other computer programs. In our introductory courses, we will often use a programming environment named DrScheme.

Starting DrScheme

Short Version:

To start DrScheme, click the mouse on the large, round, red icon containing the Greek letter lambda in the middle of the control panel. If you don't have that icon, click on the icon of a computer screen with a foot on it, Soon you'll see a gray window on the screen, type drscheme & in that window.

Shortly, DrScheme will start up and appear as a new window, with two white rectangular text areas against a dark gray background.

At the top of the window, just below the frame, is a menu bar, providing ways of activating various operations that DrScheme can perform. Eventually we'll explore a number of these, but for the moment let's just look at one that you're certain to need: the operation of shutting itself down.

Move the mouse pointer onto the word File at the left end of the menu bar and click the left mouse button. A small menu appears.

Move the mouse pointer onto the word Quit at the bottom of this menu and click the left mouse button. DrScheme responds by popping up a confirmation box of its own, the purpose of which is to make sure that you don't shut down DrScheme by mistake.

Move the mouse pointer onto the word Quit in the confirmation box and click the left mouse button. Both the confirmation box and the main DrScheme window disappear.

DrScheme language options

Short Version:

DrScheme can deal with computer programs written in a number of dialects of the Scheme programming language. When you start DrScheme for the first time, it expects you to use Beginning Student Scheme, which is a kind of training-wheels dialect that enables DrScheme to catch and diagnose some common mistakes of novice programmers.

Although you are novice programmers, we're going to proceed directly to Full Scheme, which is more nearly standard. To inform DrScheme of this decision, we'll need another of the operations accessed through the menu bar. If you exited from DrScheme, restart it now. When the window appears, move the mouse pointer onto the word Language on the menu bar and click the left mouse button to bring up the Language menu. Move the mouse pointer onto the phrase Choose Language... and click the left mouse button again to select that operation. Another window appears.

Move the mouse pointer over the triangle to the left of PLT and click on it until it points downward. You should see a few more words indented. Click on Graphical (MrEd, includes MzScheme).

Move the mouse pointer onto the word OK and click the left mouse button. The extra window disappears, leaving the DrScheme window. Next, move the mouse pointer onto the word Execute (next to a green arrow, just below the menu bar) and press the left mouse button. DrScheme now expects programs in the dialect it calls Graphical Full Scheme.

DrScheme retains the information that you prefer to use full Scheme, so that when you log in again tomorrow and start DrScheme again, it will automatically expect programs in that dialect. You won't need to use the Choose Language operation again unless you decide that you'd like to experiment with Beginning Student Scheme or some other dialect.

Make sure that all members of your group login and choose the appropriate dialect of Scheme before you go on to do any other work in Scheme.

DrScheme's Interactions Pane

Short Version:

Now you're ready to look at the parts of DrScheme.

In the interactions pane -- the lower of the two large text areas -- DrScheme displays a one-line greeting, a reminder of which dialect of Scheme it expects to see, and a prompt (in this case, a greater-than sign), indicating that DrScheme is ready to deal with any command that you type in.

To enter a Scheme program, move the mouse pointer to the right of the prompt, click the left mouse button, and type in the program. (If you prefer, you can select the program from another window by moving the mouse pointer to the beginning of the program, pressing and holding the left mouse button, dragging the mouse pointer to the end of the program, and releasing the left mouse button. The background color against which the text that you have selected changes during this process, so that you can see the boundaries of the selection clearly. You can then paste the selected text into the interactions pane by moving the mouse pointer to the right of the prompt and clicking the middle mouse button.)

To get DrScheme to execute your program, press the Enter key after the right parenthesis. At this point, DrScheme examines your program, translates it into a sequence of instructions to the computer's central processor (the electronic circuit that directs the movement and transformation of data inside the computer), executes it, and prints out the result of its computation. Because this particular program is extremely simple, the result is printed immediately.

You may notice that DrScheme prints out another prompt after executing your program. This is because DrScheme cannot be sure that it has seen all the steps in the program. A program written in Scheme has a particularly simple structure: it is a sequence of definitions and commands -- any number of them, in any order. DrScheme reacts to each definition that you type into the interactions pane by memorizing it and to each command by carrying out the command. (The expression (sqrt 137641) is a command -- Compute the square root of 137641!) Because a program might contain several commands rather than just one, DrScheme has to be prepared to receive another after carrying out the first.

DrScheme's Definitions Panel

Short Version:

The upper text area in the DrScheme window, which is called the definitions pane, is used when you want to prepare a program off-line, that is, without immediately executing each step. Instead of processing what you type line by line, DrScheme waits for you to click on the button labeled Execute (the second button from the right, in the row just below the menu bar) before starting to execute the program in the definitions pane. If you never click on that button, fine -- your program is never executed.

As its name implies, the definitions pane usually contains definitions rather than commands, although either kind of expression can be written in either pane. The difference is simply that we generally want an immediate response to a command, whereas definitions are usually processed in bulk.

Warning: When you click on the Execute button, the contents of the interactions pane are erased. The idea is that executing the program in the definitions pane may invalidate the results of previous interactions. Erasing the results that may now be inconsistent with the new definitions ensures that all visible interactions use the same vocabulary. This is actually a helpful feature of DrScheme, but it can take you by surprise the first time you see it happen. Just make sure that you have everything you need from the interactions pane before clicking on Execute.

Lists in Scheme

Constructing Lists

In addition to unstructured data types such as symbols and numbers, Scheme supports lists, which are structures that contain other values as elements. There is one list, the empty list, that contains no elements at all. Any other list is constructed by attaching some value, called the car of the new list, to a previously constructed list, which is called the cdr of the new list.

Scheme's name for the empty list is a pair of parentheses with nothing between them: (). When we refer to the empty list in a Scheme program, we have to put an apostrophe before the left parenthesis, so that Scheme won't mistake the parentheses for a procedure call:

> ()

Since this conventional name for the empty list is not very readable, our implementation of Scheme also provides a built-in name, null, for the empty list. We follow this usage and recommend it.

> null

The simplest way to build a list is with the list procedure. You tell Scheme to build a list by writing an open parenthesis, the procedure name list, the values you want in the list, and a close parenthesis.

> (list 1 2 3)
(1 2 3)
> (list 3 1 2 5 6)
(3 1 2 5 6)

You can name a list you've created with the define procedure.

> (define lst (list 1 2 3 4 5))
> lst
(1 2 3 4 5)

You can also add an element to the front of a list with cons. It takes two arguments and returns a list that is just like the second argument, except that the first argument has been added at the beginning, as a new first element. Once again, this change does not affect the original list.

> (define lst (list 1 2 3 4 5))
> lst
(1 2 3 4 5)
> (cons 6 lst)
(6 1 2 3 4 5)
> (define newlst (cons 0 lst))
> newlst
(0 1 2 3 4 5)
> lst
(1 2 3 4 5)

Task: Try this example!

You can even use cons to build up a list from nothing (or at least from null).

> (define singleton (cons 5 null))
> singleton
> (define doubleton (cons 8 singleton))
> doubleton
(8 5)
> (define tripleton (cons 0 doubleton))
> tripleton
(0 8 5)
> (cons 1 (cons 2 (cons 3 (cons 4 null))))
(1 2 3 4)

Task: Try this example!

Extracting Values

Once you've built a list, you can extract the first element with car and the rest of the list (all but the first element) with cdr. Neither operation affects the original list; they simply create a new value or list.

> (define lst (list 1 2 3 4 5))
> lst
(1 2 3 4 5)
> (car lst)
> (cdr lst)
(2 3 4 5)
> lst
(1 2 3 4 5)

Task: Try this example!

Task: Figure out how to get the second value in a list.

Common list procedures

Scheme provides several built-in procedures that operate on lists. Here are a few that are very frequently used:

The length procedure takes one argument, which must be a list, and computes the number of elements in the list.

Task: Play with length to make sure you understand it.

The reverse procedure takes a list and returns a new list containing the same elements, but in the opposite order.

> (reverse (list 1 2 3))
(3 2 1)

The append procedure combines elements on shorter lists to create a longer list.

> (append (list 1 2 3 4) (list 15 16 17))
(1 2 3 4 15 16 17)

As the example suggests, when applied to two lists, append creates a new list which contains all elements of the first list followed by all elements of the second list.

Defining Procedures

Scheme even lets you define your own procedures. Here's a simple procedure that gives you the second value in a list. You might want to enter it in the top half of the DrScheme window (the definitions pane).

(define (second lst)
  (car (cdr lst)))


Task: Write a procedure, (swap-first-two lst) that swaps the first two elements of a list. For example,

> (swap-first-two (list 1 2 3 4 5))
(2 1 3 4 5)
> (swap-first-two (list 10 100))
(100 10)

Task: Write a procedure, (last lst) that returns the last element on a list. For example,

> (last (list 1 2 3 4))


Scheme lets you write conditionals with the if procedure. It takes the form

(if test

Scheme tests usually have the form

(test-operation val1 ... valn)

You can use the null? operation to determine if a list is empty.

> (null? (list 1 2 3))
> (null? null)
> (null? (cdr (list 1)))

Task: Write a procedure, only-one? that determines if a list has only one element. (Try not to use length.) For example,

> (only-one? (list 1))
> (only-one? null)
> (only-one? (list 1 2 3 4 5))

Scheme also provides five numeric tests, <, <=, >, >=, and =. For example, to check if x is less than y, I might use

> (< 4 6)
> (< 6 -2)
> (define x 10)
> (< x 4)

Here's a simple use of if to find the smaller of two numbers.

(define (smaller num1 num2) 
  (if (< num1 num2)

Task: Test this procedure.

Task: Update swap-first-two so that it does not crash when you try to swap the first two elements of a list with fewer than two elements.


1. Review the work you've done so far and make a list of any questions or comments you may have.

2. Read the following document that discusses common sorting routines.

Some Standard Sorting Algorithms

The problem of putting a collection of values in order appears so frequently that it's one of the most commonly studied problems in computer science. As with many problems, it has many different potential solutions. In this document, we consider a four of the standard algorithms that computer scientists have developed over the years.

As you read through these algorithms, you might want to try running them by hand to see how (and whether) they work.

Selection Sort

Selection sort relies on your ability to easily identify the smallest value in the collection. To sort using selection sort, you repeatedly (1) identify the smallest value and (2) put it at the front of the values not yet identified. We can naturally phrase this algorithm recursively.

To sort a list of values using selection sort
  If the list is empty then
    You're done
    Identify small, the smallest value in the list
    Remove small from the list
    Sort the modified list
    Shove small back on the front of the sorted list

Of course, for this algorithm to work, we need a way to find the smallest value in a list and to remove an element from a list. We'll consider finding the smallest value and leave removal as a thought problem.

It's fairly easy to find the smallest value in a list. Here are two techniques, one using repetition and one using recursion.

To find the smallest value in a list (version 1: repetition)
  Let guess be the first value in the list
  For each value, val, in the list
    If val < guess then
      Let guess be val
  guess is now the smallest value in the list
To find the smallest value in a list (version 2: recursion)
  If the list contains only one element then
    That element is the smallest value in the list
    Let first be the first element in the list
    Let guess by the smallest value in the remainder of the list
    The smaller of guess and first is the smallest
      value in the list

Insertion Sort

Insertion sort works by building the sorted list from the bottom up. We repeatedly take the first element from the list to be sorted and put it in the correct place in the sorted list.

To sort a list, lst, using insertion sort
  Create an empty list sorted
  Insert each value in lst into the correct place in sorted

To insert each value in lst into the correct place in sorted
  For each value, val in lst
    Insert val into the correct place in sorted

Note that we might also want to phrase a key step in insertion sort recursively.

To insert each value in lst into the correct place in sorted
  If lst is empty then
    You're done
    Insert the first element in lst into sorted
    Insert the remaining elements in lst into the new sorted

In either case, we rely on a helper procedure. This time, the goal of the procedure is to insert a value into a sorted list.

To insert one value, val, at the proper position 
in a sorted list, slist
  Possibility One: slist is empty
    Make a list from val
  Possibility Two: val is less than or equal to 
  the first value in slst
    Add val to the front of slst
  Possibility Three: val is greater than the first value
  in slst
    Keep the first value in slst and insert val into
    the rest of slst

Merge Sort

Both selection sort and insertion sort build the sorted list one element at a time. As you get more experience in computer science, you'll quickly learn that there are sometimes better ways to break up your work. The divide-and-conquer technique suggests breaking your work in half (or other large parts). We can use that technique along with recursion to come up with a sorting algorithm called Merge Sort.

To sort a list using merge sort
  Split the list into two equal halves (or as equal as possible)
  Sort each half
  Merge the two halves together

Once again, we rely on some helper algorithms. We need a way to split the list in half and a way to merge two sorted lists into one sorted list. We'll leave splitting as an exercise to the reader. Merging is somewhat more interesting.

To merge two sorted lists, slst1 and slst2
  Possibility 1: slst1 is empty
    Just use slst2
  Possibility 2: slst2 is empty
    Just use slst1
  Possibility 3: The first element of slst1 is less than
  element of slst2
    Use the first element of slst1 as the first element
      of the merged list.
    Build the rest of the merged list by merging the rest of slst1
      with slst2.
  Possibility 4: The first element of slst1 is not less than
  the first element of slst2
    Use the first element of slst2 as the first element
      of the merged list.
    Build the rest of the merged list by merging the slst1
      with the rest of slst2.

Permutation Sort

The previous sorts progressively move elements toward their desired positions. Some problems, however, require you to generate various possibilities and check that they have a desired property. A Permutation Sort first forms a list containing all permutations of the initial list elements. It then methodically examines each of these permutations until it finds a permutation that also is sorted. Of course, generating all permutations can take a long time (even relatively small data sets may have many permutations), so this is not a particularly good sorting algorithm. However, for some problems, variations of this approach may be the only known solutions.
To sort a list using permutation sort
  Generate a list of all permutations of the original list
  Examine the list of permutations until a sorted permutation is found.

This time, we need several helper algorithms; various steps may be conceptually straightforward, but helper procedures allow us to organize various details. Here are two helper steps for finding a sorted permutation within a list of permutations.

To find a sorted permutation within a list of permutations
  If 1st permutation on the list is sorted then
     You're done
     Find a sorted permutation among the remaining permutations
To determine if a list of numbers is sorted
  If list is null or contains 1 element then
     list is sorted
  Otherwise compare the first two items on the list
     If the first item is not less than the second then
        the list is not sorted
     Otherwise check that the elements after the first form a sorted list

(Note: Technically, the less-than test < can be used to check as many elements as you wish; the less-than test < can be used to compare more than 2 elements. The above algorithm suggests how this less-than test works.)

Generating permutations requires more work. An outline of one approach follows:

To generate all permutations of a list lst
  If the list is null then
     the only permutation is the null list, so the list of all
         permutations is just the list containing the null list
     generate a list of all permutations of (cdr lst)
     insert (car lst) successively into every position
         of every permutation of (cdr lst)

Day Two

Exercise: Comparing Algorithms

We've seen that it's possible to write different algorithms to solve the same problem. Given more than one algorithm that solves the same problem, what criteria might you use to select one algorithm rather than another?

Exercise: Studying Selection Sort

Here is the selection sort algorithm as implemented in Scheme. (Note that I've eliminated many of the comments that would typically accompany the program code.)

(define (selection-sort lst)
  (if (null? lst)
      (selection-sort-helper (smallest lst) lst)))
  ; The helper procedure handles the deletion of the smallest
  ; element and the repetition
  (define (selection-sort-helper smallest-value lst)
     (cons smallest-value 
          (selection-sort (remove lst smallest-value))))

(define (smallest lst)
  (if (null? (cdr lst))
      (car lst)
      (smaller (car lst) (smallest (cdr lst)))))

(define (smaller val1 val2)
  (if (< val1 val2) val1 val2))

(define (remove lst val)
  (if (eq? val (car lst))
      (cdr lst)
      (cons (car lst) (remove (cdr lst) val))))

You can use these procedures by adding the following line to your definitions pane and then clicking execute.

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-selection-sort.ss")

1. Test the three key helper procedures, smallest, smaller, and remove. Here are some examples to get you started.

> (smaller 1 2)
> (smaller 2 1)
> (smaller -5 2)
> (smallest (list 1 2 3 4 5))
> (remove 4 (list 1 2 3 4 5))

2. Test selection-sort on some simple lists you create yourself.

3. For more interesting testing, you need a way to create large lists. Here's a procedure I like to use.

(define (random-list n)
  (if (= n 0)
      (cons (random 1000) (random-list (- n 1)))))

You can add this definition in your definitions window. I've also put a copy of this procedure in a file, which you can load with

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/random-list.ss")

Try creating random lists of 5, 10, and 100 elements.

4. You can now combine pieces to build and sort larger lists as a way of testing selection sort. Here are some examples:

> (define sample (random-list 500))
> (length sample)
> sample
> (selection-sort sample)
> (selection-sort (reverse (selection-sort sample)))

a. Try some of your own examples.

b. Why do you think I included that last test?

5. As we discussed, it is often useful to be able to predict the running time of an algorithm. We'll use an experimental approach. In your CS courses, you will also see a more formal approach. We need to begin by gathering information on the running time of selection sort on various sizes of inputs. Here's a technique I've found useful. Enter the following in your definitions window

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-selection-sort.ss")
(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/random-list.ss")
(define sample (random-list 100))
(define result null)
(time (set! result (selection-sort sample)))

When you click the Execute button, DrScheme will tell you how much time it spent sorting the list (use cpu time, it's the most accurate). We use the odd syntax because the default behavior of time is to print the result, and we really don't want the result printed.

Gather between ten and twenty data points for running time using different size lists.

6. Most of us can't see patterns in numeric data and instead rely on visualization techniques. We'll use a program called Maple to visualize these data.

a. You may have a Maple icon in your control panel. If so, click it. If not, click on the picture of the terminal with the foot and then type xmaple.

b. In the untitled window, enter the following, which provides some sample data

spoints := pointplot({[100,250],[200,1000]},
sfun := plot(x*x/1000, x=1..1000, color=green):

If all goes right, you should see points plotted at (100,250) and (200,4000). Replace those two values with the values you recorded earlier and re-plot.

c. Past experience tells us that the values for selection sort will be reasonable close to a quadratic curve so we want to draw a parabola that matches. Update the display line to read


You should see a parabola that does not match your data, which is a good starting point.

d. Update the coefficient of x*x in the plot so that the curve matches your data fairly closely. You may have to try a variety of values before you find a good match.

Exercise: A Formal Problem Specification

The selection sort algorithm requires us to repeatedly remove a value from a list. Without worrying about how to remove an element from a list, carefully describe what it means to remove a value from a list. Think about it in the sense of writing a contract for the programmer: What guarantees do you require for the result of the algorithm?

Exercise: Comparing Sorting Algorithms

Since the permutation sort must generate all permutations and then search for a sorted one, it takes considerably longer than the other sorting algorithms that make progress toward the actual sorted list at each stage. Thus, we will look at the selection sort, insertion sort, and merge sort first. As time permits, we will examine the permutation sort.

Comparison of Selection, Insertion, and Merge Sorts

Using the techniques you've developed for evaluating the running time of selection sort, compare the running times of selection sort, insertion sort, and merge sort. Which is fastest on large problems? On small? How much faster?

Note that you may have difficulty finding a quadratic function that matches the running time of merge sort. You might want to try other functions to see if you can get a better fit.

You can load an implementation of selection sort with

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-selection-sort.ss")

That Scheme file provides the procedures

You can load an implementation of insertion sort with

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-insertion-sort.ss")

That Scheme file provides the procedures

You can load an implementation of merge sort with

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-merge-sort.ss")

That Scheme file provides the procedures

Efficiency of the Permutation Sort

The permutation sort first generates all permutations of a list. If the list has N items, the number of permutations is N factorial or N * (N-1) * (N-2) * ... * 2 * 1. These permutations then must be tested in sequence until a sorted permutation is found. To test one permutation, successive elements must be checked to determine if they are in ascending sequence. This requires about N tests. Altogether, in the worst case, all permutations must be tested, and this requires about N * (N factorial) tests, so we might expect the performance of the permutation sort to be roughly proportional to N * (N factorial).

1. Write out the product of terms needed to computer N * (N factorial) for N being 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9. Can you find a rule that allows you to compute one of these values from the previous?

2. You can load an implementation of permutation sort with

(load "/home/walker/public_html/sorting-workshop/Scheme/simple-permutation-sort.ss")

That Scheme file provides several procedures, including

3. Check that generate-permutations does indeed produce all permutations of a list. For example, you might try:

> (generate-permutations (list 3 1 2)

Similarly, you might check that permutation-sort does select the correct, sorted permutation:

> (permutation-sort (list 3 1 2))

4. Time the permutation sort with lists of 6, 7, and 8 elements. For example, you might try

> (time (permutation-sort (list 6 5 4 3 2 1)))
> (time (permutation-sort (list 7 6 5 4 3 2 1)))
> (time (permutation-sort (list 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1)))

How well does the time from one of these tests allow you to predict the time required for the next?

5. Use your experience with the past experiments to estimate how long the permutation sort might take for a list of nine elements. Then compare your result with the actual time required for

> (time (permutation-sort (list 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1)))

Exercise: Finding the Largest Value

Here's a Scheme procedure that finds the smallest value in a list of numbers.

(define (smallest lst)
  ; If the list has only one element
  (if (null? (cdr lst))
      ; That one element is the smallest
      (car lst)
      ; Otherwise, use the smaller of the first element and
      ; the smallest remaining element
      (smaller (car lst) (smallest (cdr lst)))))

(define (smaller val1 val2)
  (if (< val1 val2) val1 val2))

1. Test those procedures to make sure that they work as you'd expect.

2. Write and test a Scheme procedure that finds the largest value in a list of procedures.

As you may have observed, smallest and largest are surprisingly similar, differing only in their use of a procedure to select between two values and the procedure used on the rest of the list. We can perhaps phrase the procedure more generally as

(define (best lst better)
  ; If the list has only one element
  (if (null (cdr? lst))
      ; Then that value is the best
      (car lst)
      ; Otherwise, use the better of the first element and the
      ; best remaining element
      (better (car lst) (best (cdr lst) better))))

3. Test best using a list of numbers and smaller as parameters.

4. Test best using a list of numbers and larger as parameters.

5. Write a closer-to-100 procedure that, given two values, returns the one that is closer to 100.

6. Using best and closer-to-100, find the value in a list of numbers that is closest to 100.

History and Acknowledgments

This material is based on labs first created by Samuel A. Rebelsky in 2002 and revised by him again in August 2003. A more detailed history follows:

Tuesday, 20 August 2002 by Samuel A. Rebelsky

Wednesday, 21 August 2002 by Samuel A. Rebelsky

Monday, 18 August 2003 by Samuel A. Rebelsky

Saturday-Sunday, 14-15 August 2004 by Henry M. Walker

Monday-Tuesday, 16-17 August 2004 by Henry M. Walker


This document is available on the World Wide Web as
created by Samuel A. Rebelsky in late summer, 2002
revised by Samuel A. Rebelsky in August 2003
revised by Henry M. Walker for 2004
last revised August 17, 2004
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For more information, please contact Henry M. Walker at (walker@cs.grinnell.edu)