Story of Afghan Girls Is Among Many at Global Robotics Event

WASHINGTON (AP) — An international robotics competition in Washington is in its final day Tuesday with teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations competing. The team getting the most attention at the FIRST Global Challenge is a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there are even more stories than there are teams. Here are a few:



Sixty percent of the teams participating in the competition were founded, led or organized by women. Of the 830 teens participating, 209 are girls. And there are six all-girl teams, including not only the Afghan squad but also teams from the United States, Ghana, Jordan, the Palestinian territories and the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. Vanuatu’s nickname: the “SMART Sistas.”

Samira Bader, 16, on the Jordanian team, says “it’s very difficult for us because everyone thinks” building robots is “only for boys.” She said her team wants to prove that “girls can do it.”

The three-girl U.S. team includes sisters Colleen and Katie Johnson of Everett, Washington, and Sanjna Ravichandar of Plainsboro, New Jersey. Colleen Johnson, 16, said her team looks forward “to a day when an all-girls team is going to be no more special than an all-boys team or a co-ed team, just when that’s completely normal and accepted.”

The team competing from Brunei is also all female, though a male member previously worked on the project.



The United States and Russia were on the same side Tuesday. During the fourth round of the competition, the U.S. team was paired with teams from Russia and Sudan to work as an alliance.

The robots all the teams in the competition created are designed with the same kit of parts and do the same task: pick up and distinguish between blue and orange balls. To score points, teams deposit the blue balls, which represent water, and the orange balls, which represent contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competes head to head in 2 ½ minute games.

Both U.S. and Russian teams paid their counterparts compliments after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: “They cooperate well.” And U.S. team member Collen Johnson called the Russian team’s robot “very innovative,” saying they had smartly used extra wheels and gears and zip ties to keep balls inside their robot.

Despite their good collaboration, U.S.-Russia-Sudan fell short, losing 40 to 20 to Zimbabwe, Moldova and Trinidad and Tobago.



The team from Iran got some help building their robot from American students. It turns out that the competition’s kit of robot parts including wheels, brackets, sprockets, gears, pulleys and belts was not approved for shipment to Iran due to sanctions involving technology exports to the country. So the competition recruited a robotics team at George C. Marshall high school in Falls Church, Virginia, to help. Iran’s team designed the robot, and about five Marshall students built it in the United States.

The team explained on its competition webpage that “our friends in Washington made our ideas as a robot.”

Because of the time difference between the countries, the three-member team and its mentor were sometimes up at midnight or 3 a.m. in Iran to talk to their collaborators.

Amin Dadkhah, 15, called working with the American students “a good and exciting experience for both of us.” Kirianna Baker, one of the U.S. students who built the robot, agreed. “Having a team across the world with a fresh set of eyes is very valuable,” she said.



A group of three refugees from Syria competed as team “Refugee,” also known as team “Hope.” All three fled Syria to Lebanon three years ago because of violence in their country.

Mohamad Nabih Alkhateeb, Amar Kabour and Maher Alisawui named their robot “Robogee,” a combination of the words “robot” and “refugee.”

Alkhateeb, 17, and Kabour, 16, say they want to be robotics engineers, and Alisawui wants to be a computer engineer. Kabour said it’s important to the team to win, to “tell the world” refugees are “here and they can do it.”

Alkhateeb also said that living as a refugee has been difficult, but he hopes to someday return home.

“I will go back after I have finished my education so I can rebuild Syria again,” he said.

Some 11 million people — half the Syrian population — have been forced from their homes.


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