UA to Host Robotics Competition

  • March 31st, 2014
Robots programmed by student participants navigate at the 2013 Alabama Robotics Contest.
Robots programmed by student participants navigate at the 2013 Alabama Robotics Contest.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — More than 350 students from across Alabama, from third graders to seniors in high school, will be at The University of Alabama April 5 programming robots and hoping their instructions are good enough to win the Alabama Robotics Competition.

The competition, which is in its fourth year, is hosted by the UA College of Engineering’s department of computer science. The goal is to spur interest in computer science among the state’s primary and secondary education students, said Dr. Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science.

Unlike other robotics competitions, students will not be judged on building the robot, rather how the robot performs in obstacle courses set up in the Bryant Conference Center. Students will program the robots at a computer before watching the robots autonomously carry out their instructions on the playing field.

“It’s a programming contest within the context of a robotics competition,” Gray said. “We take a fun context and make it exciting for the students, but they are still learning the fundamentals.”

Started in 2011 with 25 students, the competition has grown each year. This year’s contest will have more than 70 teams from across the state and more than 450 teachers, volunteers and family members accompanying the students.

The competition fills a gap expressed by primary and secondary teachers, Gray said. The spring contest complements other fall robotics competitions by offering students studying robotics additional activities to pursue later in the school year. Also, the competition’s emphasis on programming skills results in an autonomously-controlled robot, rather than a remote-controlled robot as in other contests.

“Points are scored in this competition based on the clever solutions of student programs, rather than the skill of a teammate with a remote control,” Gray said.

Many of the contestants will use a graphics-based programming language that allows for contestants as young as third graders to program their robot, and Gray said there has been a lot of interest from elementary schools in the competition. Gray and his team of students have also been teaching robotics one hour per week since late January at 12 Tuscaloosa City Schools.

“We’re trying to raise awareness about computer science around the state among students,” he said. “Software is driving automation. Software is everywhere, and computer scientists are the ones who are enabling the growth of automation in many areas.”

Each contestant will bring their own robot to the competition already assembled. There will be three obstacle courses of varying difficulty for the contestants. A robot scores points while maneuvering through obstacles, and the tiebreaker is the time it takes the robot to finish, Gray said.

More than $6,000 in prizes will be awarded. Sponsors of the contest include Google, Microsoft, CTS, Pearson, and the National Science Foundation.

Check-in begins at 10 a.m. in the Bryant Conference Center, and the contest will be from noon to 3 p.m. More information about the contest, including photos and results after the contest, can be found at

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 4,500 students and more than 120 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Mitchell and Truman scholars.


Dr. Jeff Gray, associate professor of computer science, 205/348-2847,; Dr. Angela Barber, 205/348-2010,


Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444,

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.