Don’t expect to see pole vaults, balance beams and diving boards when some of the world’s brightest young minds come together this month in Washington for what sponsors are calling the first international robot olympics.
With an impressive global turnout, and a little political controversy, the event will feature high school computer programmers, complex electronics and what organizers are calling “cooper-tition” — cooperation and competition — among participants.
Teams from nearly 160 countries and six continents are set to gather at DAR Constitution Hall in Washington starting Sunday to participate in three days of games designed to test their ingenuity and promote STEM education — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — as a field of work for everyone, including those in the world’s least-developed countries.
As a bonus, it will satisfy the passion young people have for building robots.
Scores will be based on how well the robots are able to pick up and deposit balls in specific places, as well as how they hang from a bar that lines the staging area. Manipulating the balls is meant to simulate solutions for separating contaminated particles from water and then delivering the water to a “reservoir” as quickly as possible — part of a larger engineering challenge of providing safe, drinkable water to countries around the world.
Like the official Olympic Games, the Washington gathering has not been free of political controversy, with both the Gambian team and an all-girl team from Afghanistan finding their original visa applications denied by the U.S. government. After a spate of publicity, the teenage members of the Gambian team were approved for visas, although Mucktarr Darboe, the team’s mentor and director of Gambia’s ministry of higher education, research, science and technology, will not be allowed to accompany them.
The denials were issued even though teams from Iran and Sudan, countries on the Trump administration’s list of countries facing a temporary travel ban, were issued visas to travel to Washington this week.
The event is being organized by FIRST Global, an Alexandria-based nonprofit founded by Dean Kamen, best known as the inventor of the Segway.
Teams say they have been preparing feverishly with the opening ceremonies now less than a week away.
Michael Leventhal, a coach of the Mali national team, said the youths constructed seven prototypes of a robot from the kit FIRST Global mailed to each team a couple of months ago. In the final stretch prior to the competition, the Mali team members are meeting every day to continue improving their machine.
As the chief development officer at iNerde, one of the few STEM educational companies in western Africa that is sponsoring the Mali team, Mr. Leventhal said that even if his squad does not take home the gold, the event provides a great platform to prove that the resource-poor country can make a mark in the world of engineering and high-tech innovation.
“We’re really going to surprise people,” Mr. Leventhal said. “It’s not about winning, but the kids want to show who we are and show who Mali is.”
Mali — one of 36 total teams from Africa — is sending one female and six male high school students to the competition. Mr. Leventhal said he felt it was important to assemble a team of young scientists who are representative of the country. The members come from varied educational and socioeconomic backgrounds.
In a country where just 14 percent of high school students focus on STEM studies, the Mali team members “understand that scientists are what their country needs,” he said.
In a video posted on YouTube, the Mali team members said they wanted to push their country forward in any way possible, whether that be through building drones so people are not sent into violent and dangerous areas or through enabling advances in medicine.
“If we develop a deep understanding of robotics, we can use them to develop our country,” a young woman said in the video. “I want to encourage other kids to learn [about] robots and technology.”
Getting girls to consider the sciences is a clear theme of the gathering.
Over 200 participants at the robot competition will be female, and 60 percent of teams — including Team USA — were either founded, organized or led by women. Nearly 60 teams started out with players who did not have any experience with robotics before hearing about the FIRST Global event.
Mr. Kamen recalled conceiving of the idea to “take [robotics] international” in 1989 at a national robotics competition in the Astrodome in Houston.
“Kids in many countries, especially in the developing world, more than anybody, need to see the power and accessibility of science, technology and engineering so that they can create their own careers and their own positive environments to improve their standard of living and quality of life,” he said.
Mr. Kamen said his dream became a reality several years later, when he approached former Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania, who had been an admiral in the U.S. Navy, to help him in the effort. Mr. Sestak is now president of FIRST Global.
Several months and “thousands” of phone calls later, Mr. Kamen and Mr. Sestak say, they have experienced an explosion of interest in their vision worldwide. Even before the first opening ceremonies, some countries are talking about organizing regional qualifying tournaments for next year’s challenge.
Mr. Sestak said the strong interest means the event will be marked on calendars around the world for years to come.
“The greatest power in the world is the power to convene, to bring people together,” he said. “It shows that we have more in common than we think.”