Alejandra Mercado Avalos had never written a line of computer code before January. She had never built a robot before April. She had never left Nicaragua before July.
So it was a big deal when the 17-year-old aspiring engineer and her four teammates traveled to Washington in mid-July 2017 with their robot, “Demon,” to represent their country at the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge.
The theme of the Challenge was “Providing Access to Clean Water.” Robots made by students were tasked with collecting and sorting blue and orange plastic balls, which represented clean and contaminated water, respectively. The goal was to score the most points by depositing the balls in separate receptacles before each two-and-a-half-minute round expired.
Each team had about three months to build a robot using parts provided by competition organizers. Among the countries represented: Nepal, Cambodia, Japan, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Iraq, Mali and Yemen.
More than 160 teams from around the world competed in the two-day event founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen to inspire secondary school students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The Challenge made headlines before its opening when the six members of the all-female Afghan team were initially denied visas to enter the United States. In the end, they competed — and won a pair of medals — after President Trump intervened on their behalf.
“A project like this can change your academic path, your career plans and your whole life, if it’s your first experience with science and technology,” said 17-year-old Edy Dionisio Bautista Diaz of Honduras.
Bautista and his teammates, who live in a poor, rural area, received permission from their school principal to substitute robotics for their regular classwork in the months before the competition. Their efforts paid off when their robot, “Jorge,” finished 40th overall, putting Team Honduras in the top quartile of competitors.
The Challenge piques the interest in science even of students who aren’t competing, according to Daniel Moros, a university professor and mentor for Team Costa Rica. The three members of Moros’ team worked for months to build their robot, “D. Wane,” and fielded questions from classmates: “What is that?” “How did you build it?” “Can I join?”
“We already see this experience having a snowball effect,” Moros said.
On the last day of competition senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump met with the six all-female teams, including those from Afghanistan and the United States. “I am so inspired by what you’ve built here, and what you’re doing, and how you’re advancing the role in this case of women and girls in STEM fields,” Trump said.
In the end, the top prize for most points scored overall went to Team Europe, one of the six continental teams competing.
Medals also were awarded in categories such as engineering design and international unity. Although most teams didn’t win a medal, they did take home a different piece of valuable hardware. “They get to keep their robots,” said Moros, the Team Costa Rica mentor.