Innovative programs prepare students in Alabama for next-gen careers

The University of Alabama System is playing a lead role in building the state’s next-generation workforce, with a wide array of innovative academic programs and extra-curricular activities that prepare students for today’s most dynamic career paths.

Graduates of The University of Alabama, The University of Alabama at Birmingham and The University of Alabama in Huntsville are well positioned for careers in rapidly changing disciplines such as engineering, biotechnology and cybersecurity, and actuarial science.

“Whether they are designing the systems and vehicles that will explore the frontiers of our solar system, or discovering compounds in a laboratory that will eradicate devastating illnesses, the alumni of The University of Alabama System are always pushing boundaries toward what’s new, what’s next, what can improve our lives and our world,” said UA System Trustee Ron Gray, a technology executive and president pro tem of the Board.

“That’s something they learned in our classrooms and on our campuses, where they look beyond the technology of today to what tomorrow holds.”


University of Alabama NASA
The University of Alabama’s student Alabama Astrobotics team has won the top prize in a NASA robotics competition for four consecutive years. (Image: The University of Alabama)

At UA, a prime training ground is Alabama Astrobotics, the student team that has brought home the top prize in a prestigious NASA robotics competition for four straight years.

The team’s work prepares students for careers in engineering, design manufacturing and other fields that are continuously transformed by advances in technology, said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, team adviser and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at UA.

“Robotics is exploding,” he said. “The robotics applications here now didn’t exist five years ago, and there’s only going to be more and more in the future. This team exposes our students to the world of robotics design, manufacturing, testing and programming.

“Beyond that, they learn the soft skills of administration and delegation. They get a good taste of what it is like to work for a company that has real deadlines, budgets and deliverables.”

Currently, 63 UA students are participating, representing nine academic disciplines, including engineering, computer science, astrophysics and the STEM to MBA program. All are volunteers, working up to 10 or more hours a week based on their position within the team.

“We accept students all the way from freshmen to graduate students. The only requirement is an interest in robotics and in committing to the team and helping achieve its goals,” Ricks said.

At the 2018 NASA Robotic Mining Competition, Alabama Astrobotics beat student teams from more than 50 other institutions in the challenge to build a robot capable of navigating and excavating simulated Martian soil.

The UA robot mined more gravel than any other team. The Alabama entry was the only one that competed entirely in autonomous mode, using computer programming to guide itself, mining the soil and gravel without directions from students during the contest.

Alabama Astrobotics is the only team to win more than once in the nine-year history of the NASA contest. Alumni have gone on to earn jobs at major technology, manufacturing and design innovators, including Microsoft, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Caterpillar.

In the classroom, Dr. Ricks teaches students how to identify problems and then master techniques to solve those problems. He is not focused on standard tools, because the dynamic nature of the technology and engineering field means new processes evolve almost weekly.

“We’re really training problem-solvers,” he said. “They are using the toolbox of today, but in 10 years they’ll be using a new toolbox. They will know the techniques they need to use to find the right tools. The tools will change, but the techniques won’t.”


UAB’s initiatives to produce the workforce of the future include targeted opportunities for students interested in biological research and healthcare. (Image: UAB)

UAB’s initiatives to produce the workforce of the future include targeted opportunities for students interested in biological research and healthcare.

This fall, the university launched a new bachelor of science degree in bioinformatics, which is the science of collecting and analyzing complex biological data such as genetic codes.

The interdisciplinary program – the first of its kind in Alabama — combines computer science, biology, chemistry, mathematics, genetics and engineering. Graduates are expected to be on the front lines of the emerging disciplines of biocomputing, computational biology and bioinformatics.

“With the sequencing of the human genome, scientists now have access to extremely large amounts of biological data,” said Dr. Yuilang Zheng, chair of UAB’s Department of Computer Science. “In order for this data to help doctors and researchers better understand living systems and guide treatment of human diseases, it must be organized, managed and analyzed.

“This new program builds on an array of disciplines, giving students a marketable degree that will provide cutting-edge employment opportunities, as well as a platform for success in graduate school, medical school and other clinical-professional schools.”

Also new at UAB is the Undergraduate Immunology Program, which launched last year as the first in the Southeast. Immunology is one of the institution’s strongest research areas, with more than 100 faculty members from 15 departments and four schools actively engaged in topics ranging from AIDS to xenotransplantation.

“Essentially all human diseases have an immune component,” said Dr. Frances Lund, chair of the UAB School of Medicine Department of Microbiology. “The future cures or treatments for many diseases of national and global concern will be dependent on our ability to successfully modulate the immune system.”

Students in the program get comprehensive experience in the scientific process, critical thinking, problem solving, scientific methodology and in communicating science, said Dr. Louis Justement, director of the program, and a professor in the UAB Microbiology Department.

“Our goal is to prepare students for the challenges and opportunities of the future — and build up a pipeline of young immunologists to tackle the pressing problems of the 21st century.”


University of Alabama in Huntsville
Students in UAH’s Space Hardware Club have launched more than 70 high-altitude balloons and rockets carrying research instruments and competed in mock satellite mission contests. (Image: Space Hardware Club)

At UAH, hundreds of students from across the College of Engineering participate in the Space Hardware Club, a program that allows them to plan and execute aerospace engineering projects that unfold like the real thing.

Over the past 12 years, students in the Space Hardware Club have launched more than 70 high-altitude balloons and rockets carrying research instruments and competed in mock satellite mission contests. In 2013, UAH students launched a CubeSat – a 2.2-pound satellite called ChargerSat1 – as part of a NASA mission.

In August, a team traveled to New Mexico’s Columbia Scientific Ballooning Facility to test fly a device designed to shield NASA’s balloon-borne X-ray telescopes from radiation. During the test, the balloon ascended to 160,000 feet, and preliminary data indicates the shield did its job.

Dr. Jennifer English, associate dean of undergraduate education and an associate professor in UAH’s Electrical & Computer Engineering Department, said the Space Hardware Club offers students a glimpse of what it is like to work as an engineer.

Collaborating in teams, the students carry out projects from preliminary design through simulation, testing and assembly. After the project is completed, there’s a comprehensive post-flight review.

“As freshmen, these students are experiencing what an engineer would go through in a project,” English said. “That is invaluable, and they are going to go through that again and again while they are here with us at UAH.”

For the students, the club’s activities represent a valuable complement to the academic program at the College of Engineering, which has produced astronauts, the Air Force’s chief scientist, and aerospace company leaders.

“Besides getting engineering skills, the students taking part in Space Hardware are getting those skills that the workplace really looks for – communication, initiative, being a professional with interpersonal skills, teamwork, planning, and organization,” English said.

Many club members have found jobs at Marshall Space Flight Center and at aerospace companies in the Huntsville area, while others have gone on to graduate school to continue their research.

Mark and Eric Becnel, twin brothers who founded the Space Hardware Club while attending graduate school at UAH, started their own company, Radio Bro. The Huntsville firm specializes in miniaturized electronics systems for spacecraft, drones and planes.

Dr. English said the Becnel brothers stay engaged with the Space Hardware Club by mentoring UAH students and providing internship opportunities at Radio Bro.

“It’s a great way for the students to see full-circle how the Becnel brothers started as students and now they are leading a company and coming back to the university to mentor the next generation,” she said. “It’s a great model for our young engineers.“