NSA grant to help expand Alabama high school computer programming competition

The State of Alabama High School Programming Contest, hosted by UAB, is now open to all Alabama high school and middle school students.

Written by: Tiffany Westry

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women and coding block 6Source: National Center for Women & Information TechnologyAccording to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in computer science declined from a peak of close to 40 percent in the mid-1980s to 16 percent in 2015. The dramatic decline has occurred despite the rapid growth of the industry and increasing job demand.

In an effort to cultivate interest in science and technology in younger students, and increase participation among young girls, the University of Alabama at Birmingham is expanding this year’s State of Alabama High School Programming Contest to include middle school students.  

The contest brings talented students from throughout the state to the UAB campus to compete and demonstrate their computer programming and problem solving skills. This year’s expansion is supported by a 2016 Cyber Competition Awards Grant from the National Security Agency.

“Previously, the contest has been open only to high school students,” said Raquel Diaz-Sprague, co-principal investigator of the grant. “Research and data tell us that 66 percent of girls ages 6-12 are interested; but that interest decreases by 50 percent at ages 13-17, and falls to 4 percent among college freshmen. Given the gender gap in science and technology, it is critically important to support girls’ interest in coding as early as possible.”

Students will compete individually and in teams to demonstrate their programming skills by attempting to solve six computer programming problems within a three-hour period. In the real world, computer programmers write and test code that allows computer applications and software programs to function properly. They turn the program designs created by software developers and engineers into instructions that a computer can follow. Younger students will attempt to solve a set of problems designed for novice programmers, while older students will compete against one another to solve problems derived from what is normally expected at programming competitions around the nation. Up to $3,000 will be awarded to winners of the contest.

women and coding block 3Source: National Center for Women & Information TechnologyThis year’s contest will also include a special award to recognize young female participants. The Grace Hopper Excellence in Coding Award will be awarded to the top-performing female contestant. The award is named after U.S. Naval Officer and computer scientist Grace Hopper, who developed the first working compiler for computer languages. A compiler renders worded instructions into code that can be read by computers. This compiler was a precursor for the Common Business Oriented Language, or COBOL, a widely adapted computer language used around the world. All special awards will be announced in the Alabama State Department of Education Newsletter and disseminated to math and science teachers throughout the state.

The contest will be held Saturday, Feb. 18, at Campbell Hall, 1300 University Blvd. from 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m., and is open to all Alabama high school and middle school students. Registration is now open online. The cost of registration is $20 per student and will increase to $30 on Feb. 12. Participants will also be allowed to register on-site. Students will begin the day with registration and a tour of the UAB Department of Computer and Information Sciences.

The State of Alabama High School Programming Contest has been hosted by the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Computer and Information Sciences for more than 15 years. For more information, visit the contest website