What Really Happened At That Robotics Competition You've Heard So Much About

Jul 22, 2017
Originally published on August 10, 2017 12:51 pm

This week, the FIRST Global Challenge, a highly anticipated robotics competition for 15- to 18-year-olds from 157 countries, ended the way it began — with controversy.

On Wednesday, members of the team from the violence-torn east African country of Burundi went missing. And well before the competition even began, the teams from Gambia and Afghanistan made headlines after the U.S. State Department denied the members visas. Eventually, they were allowed to compete.

The drama marred an otherwise upbeat event focused on kids and robots.

Every team arrived with a robot in tow, each built with the exact same components, but designed, engineered and programmed differently. The goal: to gobble up and sort blue and orange plastic balls representing clean water and contaminated water.

For two days, teenagers — rich and poor, male and female — competed on a level playing field.

But there were reminders that in some parts of the world, there is no such thing as a level playing field. And no team understood that better than Team Hope, made up of Syrian refugees who had fled to Lebanon.

As Fadil Harabi, the team's mentor, pointed out, "more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon don't have legal status. They don't have passports."

Getting passports for the team, Harabi said, turned out to be a lot more complicated than building a robot.

Team Hope's robot didn't do very well, but every time the Syrian teens competed, they attracted a crowd that would clap and chant, "Team Hope, Team Hope!"

For Colleen Johnson, 18, a member of the all-girl U.S. team, that was what this event was all about.

"Everybody here is working together, loaning each other batteries, tools, helping each other fix programming issues to lift each other up," she said.

Still, the technology gap between poor and rich nations was evident. For team Honduras though, that gap is due to the lack of opportunity, not just the lack of resources.

"Honduras is a country where there aren't many opportunities," explained the team's leader, 17-year-old Daniel Marquez.

Marquez and his teammates all come from a tiny village that is a seven-hour drive — and a world away — from Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital. Not a single member of the team had ever handled a remote control, let alone built a robot.

"But the world today demands that we understand technology," said Melissa Lemus, one of two girls on the Honduran team.

As the competition entered its third and final day, I checked in on Afghanistan's all-girl team. It seemed the competitors had grown weary of the media frenzy around them.

Speaking through an interpreter, 15-year-old Yasimin Yasinzadah said she was disappointed that her teammates' skills, and the robot they built, had gotten a lot less attention than the team's visa problems, which nearly kept them out of the competition.

The Afghan team's consolation prize: a medal for "courageous achievement" and knowing that they placed much higher than countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

Top honors went to Teams Europe, Poland and Armenia.

The awards ceremony and closing ceremony felt like one big party, not so much a goodbye. It was a celebration with a hopeful message delivered by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim.

"You are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty in the world," Kim said. "And from what I saw of these robots, I know you can do it."

His message was not lost: Intelligence and talent with a moral vision have no race, nationality, religion or gender.

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This week, a highly anticipated robotics competition for 15 to 18 year olds from 157 nations ended in controversy - the way it began. On Wednesday, six members of the team from the East African country of Burundi vanished. The teams from Gambia and Afghanistan also made headlines after the U.S. State Department denied them entry visas. Eventually, they were allowed to compete. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the drama marred an otherwise uplifting event that was focused on youngsters and robots.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Dean Kamen, the inventor entrepreneur and founder of FIRST Global Challenge, opened the competition with a simple message.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEAN KAMEN: Politics divides the world. Technology can unite the world.

SANCHEZ: And with that, an Olympic-style parade of nations filled Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMEN: It is my sincere pleasure to formally declare the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge open.

SANCHEZ: Every team arrived with a robot in tow, built with the exact same components, each designed, engineered and programmed differently to gobble up and sort plastic balls. For two days, teenagers rich and poor, male and female competed on a level playing field. But there were reminders like the team made up of Syrian refugees that in some parts of the world, there is no such thing as a level playing field.

FADIL HARABI: Maybe more than 90 percent of the Syrian refugee in Lebanon don't have the passport, don't have the legal status.

SANCHEZ: Fadil Harabi, the team's mentor, says getting passports was a lot more complicated than building a robot.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) Team Hope. Team Hope. Team Hope.

SANCHEZ: Every time the Syrians, called Team Hope, competed, kids from other countries cheered them on. For Colleen Johnson, 18, a member of the all-girl U.S. team, that's what this event was all about.

COLLEEN JOHNSON: Everybody here is working together, helping each other fix programming issues, to lift each other up, to make the best competition possible.

SANCHEZ: For Team Honduras, the technology gap between poor and rich nations is as much about opportunity as it is about resources.

DANIEL MARQUEZ: (Foreign language spoken).

SANCHEZ: Seventeen-year-old Daniel Marquez says Honduras is a country where there aren't many opportunities. Not a single member of the team had ever handled a remote control, let alone built a robot.

MELISSA LEMUS: (Foreign language spoken).

SANCHEZ: "The world today demands that we understand technology," says Melissa Lemus, one of two girls on the team. As the competition entered its third and final day, I checked in on Afghanistan's all-girls team. It seemed they had grown weary of the media frenzy around them.

YASMIN YASINZADAH: (Foreign language spoken).

SANCHEZ: Speaking through an interpreter, 15-year-old Lida Azizi was disappointed that her team's skills and the robot the girls built had gotten a lot less attention than their visa problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They're happy to be here, but it's very exhausting for them. They've had very little sleep, so they're at an active disadvantage here.

SANCHEZ: The Afghan's consolation prize - a medal for courageous achievement, plus knowing they had placed much higher in countries like Canada, the United Kingdom and the U.S. Top honors went to Team Europe, Poland and Armenia. The event ended like one big party with a hopeful message delivered by World Bank president Jim Kim.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JIM KIM: You are the first generation in human history that can end extreme poverty in the world. From what I saw of these robots, I know you can do it.

SANCHEZ: Kim's message was not lost on anyone. Intelligence and talent with a moral vision have no borders, no race, nationality, religion or gender. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, one of the students from Afghanistan is incorrectly referred to as Lida Azizi. In fact, it was another Afghan student, Yasmin Yasinzadah, who was speaking.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.