Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Students compete with robots

Students ranging from elementary to high school showed off their talents during the Alabama Robotics Competition on Saturday in one of the newest but fastest growing modern fields, computer science.

The three-hour competition, which was held in the Bryant Conference Center for the fourth year running, followed a “Winter Olympics” theme, with obstacle courses using the ideas of events like figure skating and hockey.

More than 300 students on 70 teams used pre-built vehicular robots with sensors responding to color, light and obstacles in their surrounding environment. After receiving instructions about the course and performing measurements and observations, the teams programmed the robots to run autonomously.

The event, hosted by the University of Alabama department of computer science, differed from other robotics competitions in that it required robots to run based on the student-developed programs, rather than by remote control.

“The focus of this contest is not so much on building or the hardware, but more so on programming the robot. This is more about the software side,” Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science, said.

(See also “Students program robots in statewide competition“)

Gray said because of this notable aspect of the competition, they are able to provide a new learning experience that strengthens the problem-solving skills that come with a computer science education.

“They’re also learning to stick to it, in a sense,” Gray said. “Most of the time they’ll try their first program out on the course and it will fail, and they’re learning to go back and refine the solution and try to get better each time they try.

“So if their robot fails on the obstacle course, they can go back to the drawing board, so to speak, and keep trying. You see the kids notice the mistakes they made and try to fix them. They hurry to get back to the obstacle course to try again.”

Julie Altmark, coach of the Shades Mountain Elementary School team, said she saw students learn about problem solving, communication, teamwork, patience and persistence at the competition.

“They have to read what the problem is, interpret what the challenge is and then turn that into a program. So they’re getting all kinds of skill sets,” Altmark said.

Azim Merchant, a member of the Alabama School of Fine Arts team, said he noticed his problem-solving abilities improve from being in the competition.

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“It helped me basically reinstate my logical thinking,” Merchant said. “It helps me visualize problems in my head and solve them. I also have to think about experimentation, trial and error, what I’d do with this, what can I do with that.”

Gray said one of the goals of the contest was to raise awareness of the opportunities that come from programming skills.

Altmark, who leads a computer science club for students at Shades Mountain, said she hopes schools will recognize the importance of teaching computer science.

“That’s where the future is,” she said. “If they’re not able to program, they’re going to be left way, way behind. Not necessarily every person will have to program, but if they want a guaranteed career, they need to be able to problem solve and they need to be able to use the computer effectively.”

About one-third of the teams came from Tuscaloosa. Gray said the department’s way of giving back to the community and ensuring the need for computer science education is met through a spring program, in which undergraduates from the University train students for one hour per week for six to eight weeks.

The event was sponsored by Microsoft, Google, CTS, Pearson and the National Science Foundation.

(See also “Engineering students prepare for robotics competition“)

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