Making it to Washington was the real challenge for some of the 163 teams from around the world.
As the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge – a STEM exposition featuring teenagers from 157 countries – wound down Tuesday evening in Washington, a deafening roar took over DAR Constitution Hall as more than 150 countries’ flags waved in the air during a closing ceremony that celebrated collaboration, innovation and engineering excellence.
It made no difference which team’s name was called: Hundreds of students and mentors from the 163 teams cheered just as loudly for their competitors as they did for their allies. Over the past few months, each team built a robot based on the same kit and then brought it to the July 16-18 FIRST Global Challenge, which had a water security theme. The nonprofit FIRST was founded by Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway, to promote global collaboration in science, technology, engineering and math.
The friendly atmosphere at the “Robotic Olympics” made it clear that organizers and teams alike viewed the event as a challenge rather than a competition. For some, half of that challenge was getting to the nation’s capital.
Afghanistan’s team made headlines this month when its visa requests were denied twice and the group almost missed the competition, until President Donald Trump intervened last week to urge State Department authorities to reconsider. The five girls were granted entry to the U.S. less than a week before the competition, leaving the team to scramble to find flights and plan the trip, team mentor Alireza Mehraban said. Still, he said they were relieved when they heard they’d be allowed to attend the competition after all.
The Afghan girls, who won a silver medal for courageous achievement during the awards ceremony (the gold went to South Sudan), were not the only team that overcame barriers to compete at the FIRST Global Challenge.
The Gambian team, made up of two girls and three boys, was also initially denied entry to the U.S., but ended up making its way to Washington. Team member Fatoumata Ceesay said they continued working on their robot while they waited in limbo, unsure if the State Department would reverse its decision.
The refusal rate for temporary visas into the U.S. was about 74 percent for those coming from Afghanistan and about 70 percent for Gambia in 2016, according to State Department statistics.
“I truly believe our greatest power is the power to convene nations, to bring people together in the pursuit of a common goal and prove that our similarities greatly outweigh our differences,” FIRST Global President Joe Sestak, a former congressman and U.S. Navy admiral, said in a July 12 statement. “That is why I am most grateful to the U.S. government and its State Department for ensuring Afghanistan, as well as Gambia, would be able to join us for this international competition this year.”
Continue onto U.S. News & World Report to read more about the Global STEM competition.