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Afghan girls' story was among many at global robotics event

Afghan girls' story was among many at global robotics event

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WASHINGTON (AP) — An international robotics competition in Washington attracted teams of teenagers from more than 150 nations. The team that drew the most attention at the FIRST Global Challenge, which ended Tuesday, was a squad of girls from Afghanistan who were twice rejected for U.S. visas before President Donald Trump intervened. But there were even more stories than there were 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 were girls. And there were 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 included 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 was 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 were 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 deposited the blue balls, which represented water, and the orange balls, which represented contaminants, into different locations. Each three-nation alliance competed head to head in 2 ½ minute games.

Both U.S. and Russian teams complimented their counterparts after their game Tuesday. Russian team member Aleksandr Iliasov said of the U.S. team: "They cooperate well." And U.S. team member Colleen 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 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.



Teams left with gold, silver and bronze medals in a variety of categories.

The Europe team won a gold award for getting the most cumulative points over the course of the competition. Poland got silver and Armenia bronze. Finland won a gold award for winning the best win-loss record. Silver went to Singapore and bronze to India.

There were also awards for engineering design, innovation and international unity, among others. The Afghanistan team won a silver medal for "courageous achievement." The award recognized teams that exhibited a "can-do" attitude even under difficult circumstances or when things didn't go as planned. The gold medal in that category went to the South Sudan team and bronze to the Oman team, whose students are deaf.

The 2018 competition will be held in Mexico City.


Follow Jessica Gresko on Twitter at

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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