The competition brought together close to 160 participating nations, who competed in finding solutions to water security – the competition’s topic this year. Modeled after the 14 Grand Challenges identified by the national engineering academies of the United States, United Kingdom and China, each year, a different issue of global importance will take center stage as the theme of that year's FIRST Global Challenge, held in a different location every year.
Aside from the country teams, there were also multinational teams representing continents. One group — Team Hope — was composed of refugees from Syria.
Over 50 diplomatic missions accredited in the U.S. attended the FIRST Global Challenge Opening Ceremony on Sunday, and Ivanka Trump opened day two of the competition on Tuesday.
Priority: having fun!
Even though the competition was fierce, the participants were having fun and making new friends from around the world. Asked who had the best robot, Team North America responded unanimously, “Team Oceania, because they are really fun to be around.”
The students were cooperating closely, with many of them discussing strategies before they go on stage. “Team Haiti’s robot can shoot, while we have a really good mechanism to pick up and sort the blue and orange balls, so they will send the blue balls our way” Bakir Kapetanović from team Bosnia and Herzegovina told us.
Many teams also shared goodies representing their country, like Belgium, who gave out chocolate and Cote D’Or ice cream to their peers.
The First Global Challenge volunteers encouraged the teams to wear clothes that represented their respective countries on Tuesday. Australia took that suggestion very seriously, bringing stuffed koala bears and decorating their booth with pineapples and pictures representing the land down under.
At one point, the students from Jamaica brought their speakers and blasted music, which was very well received by their neighbors, team Israel, who, donned in blue and white, danced through the hallways on their way to the last round of competition.
Afghani girls twice rejected for a U.S visa
Many of these young talented people had a difficult time getting to Washington, encountering political obstacles in their respective countries. “Team Afghanistan,” consisting of five Afghani teenage girls, were denied a U.S. visa before they were granted permission to attend the competition.
They had twice trekked around 500 miles from Herat, a western city in Afghanistan, to the American embassy in Kabul to apply for the one-week travel visas.
After hearing about the girls' case, President Trump intervened at the last minute to grant the girls passage to the United States, and they arrived Saturday.
“We constructed our robot in two weeks and send in our application to show the world we could do it. We were so disappointed when we were rejected, but we continued our fight to make it here,” Rodaba Noori said, while her teammates were surrounded by photographers in a packed DAR Constitution Hall.
The girls were overjoyed when they were granted their visas. “When we arrived, we cried for two days because we couldn’t believe we had made it. We are so happy.”
“We want to become architects and computer scientists, and we want to help the youth in our country,” said Fatemah Qaderyu, 14, while the other girls nodded along.
South Sudan awarded gold medal for courageous achievement
Living in a country ravaged by war and hunger, but also the devastating effects of acute climate change, the team of South Sudan felt a personal responsibility to participate in the joint effort for water security.
The United Nations has warned that South Sudan is at grave risk of falling behind in the world’s fight against climate change, and according to the Climate Change Vulnerability Index 2017 compiled by global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, South Sudan is ranked among the world's five most vulnerable countries and is experiencing some of the most acute temperature changes.
The students hope to inspire South Sudanese to love, embrace and study science, technology, engineering and mathematics that will be applied in addressing the grave challenges affecting their lives.
Team South Sudan was the recipient of the El Moursli Courageous Achievement during this year’s FIRST Global Challenge award ceremony. Team Afghanistan won the silver medal in this category.
Cooperation across boundaries
FIRST Global founder Dean Kamen, an inventor known for creating the Segway, said the competition’s objective is not just to teach children to build robots and hone skills in science, technology, engineering and math. He also hopes it drives home the lesson of the importance of cooperation — across languages, cultures and borders.
Over 600 million people around the world don't have reliable access to clean water, and only a decade ago half the planet was living in poverty, “you can be the generation to change that,” the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, said in his closing remarks, encouraging the students to develop their skills in STEM and use them for the public good.
FIRST Global founding member, renowned entrepreneur Ricardo Salinas, announced Mexico City as next year’s host for the second iteration of the FIRST Global Challenge.
A list of the award recipients (the categories recognized a gold, silver, and bronze medal – below are the gold medal recipients):
Sofia Kovalevskaya Award for International journey: Nigeria
Dr. Mae Jemison Award for International Unity: Canada
Rajaâ Cherkaoui El Moursli Award for Courageous Achievement: South Sudan
Zhang Heng Award for Engineering Design: India
Ustad Ahmad Lahori Award for Engineering Innovation: Latvia
Albert Einstein Award for FIRST Global International Excellence: Team Oceania
Francisco Jose de Caldas Award for Sustainable Excellence: South Sudan
First Global Challenge Award (recognition for the team that earned the most match points): Finland
First Global Grand Challenge Award (recognition for the highest overall score): Team Europe