As I write, six teenage women from Herat, Afghanistan are in the final hours of the 2017 FIRST Global international robotics challenge in Washington, DC with 163 teams from 157 countries.
Until just before the opening of the event dubbed the “Olympics of Robotics,” the disheartened six were resigned to watching their machine perform under others’ directions via video link in Herat. They had twice applied for visas, twice travelled the 500 miles from Herat to Kabul for interviews, twice been refused. Their robot’s parts had been held in customs for months, the U.S. State Department fearing their use by ISIS, giving them a shortened time frame within which to design their ball sorter from the kit identical to those sent to every participating team.
With only days to spare, enough international censure prompted intervention at a higher level and the six arrived in the U.S. just two days before their first competition after the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services finally approved a State Department request, essentially “paroling” the girls through the Department of Homeland Security.
Dean Kamen, FIRST Global founder and inventor of the Segway, said one objective of the competition is to teach children about robotics or exploring STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) but that he also hopes the teamwork involved will impresses upon youngsters the importance of cooperation with those of different cultures and languages.Toward this goal, teams are paired to form alliances, then, this year, on a playing field with simulated grass and water, their robots are expected to scan the flow of orange and blue balls on the painted river, recognize colors, and sort the clean (blue) balls from the contaminated (orange) ones.
Fourteen-year-old Fatemah Qaderyu told the Washington Post, “We feel really good that we can show our talents here. Afghanistan is not just a place of war. Afghan girls can build robots and compete in global competitions.”
Joe Sestak, president of First Global, credited “the professional leadership of the U.S. State Department” for ensuring that all 163 teams would be able to participate.”
However it came about, it was the right thing to do. The world, not just the U.S. will need all the bright and persistent minds it can muster, whatever the language or national origin, in the coming years.