(Source: www.straitstimes.com)

A four-member team from Singapore’s Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) is among 157 country teams competing in Washington DC in the first international Robot Olympics for high school students.

The First Global Challenge got an unusual publicity boost when an all-female Afghanistan high school team from Herat was initially refused entry visas by the United States. However, in an about-turn, they received them just days ago after President Donald Trump intervened. “We were so happy we finally got the visas,” 16-year-old Rodaba Noori told The Straits Times.

“We’re so happy to be able to show the talents and abilities of Afghans and to be an example for other girls in Afghanistan.”

The Afghanistan team led the walk-on at the opening ceremony to thunderous cheers.

For many of the students, the competition gave them a chance to travel out of their countries for the first time. For some, like 16-year-old Nepali Rubi Balami from a school in Pharping in a rural area south-west of Kathmandu, and her teammates, it was their first time on a plane.

Opening the competition, organiser Dean Kamen, best known for inventing the self-balancing scooter Segway, emphasised “gracious professionalism”.

“We built First… so we can all win together,” he said. First is an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology” – an organisation founded by Mr Kamen in 1989 which is organising the Robot Olympics under the banner “First Global”.

The concept, he said, was to empower bright young minds through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) to power accelerated economic growth, particularly in developing countries.

Each team works with the exact same robot kit, bought for US$850 (S$1,164) from the organisers, and cannot use anything but the parts in the boxes. The objective: to construct a robot which is capable of gathering, sorting and delivering coloured balls to a set spot.

The competition concludes today. Winners receive a trophy but no monetary prize.

“This is beyond amazing,” Dr Vincent Wilczynski, deputy dean and director of the Centre for Engineering Innovation and Design at Yale, told The Straits Times.

“It symbolises the sense of cooperation that really exists in the world,” said Dr Wilczynski, who is also co-chairman of the executive advisory board of First.

The ACS(I) students started in robotics when they joined the school’s Robotics Club in Secondary 1. Since then, they have participated in national and international (VEX Robotics World Championship) robotics competitions, finishing top in national meets and as finalists in international meets.

The team comprises 17-year-old captain Isaac Lee (strategist and playmaker); 17-year-old Aron Choo (builder and driver), who is chairman-designate of the club; and 15-year-olds Tan Hsien Rong (programmer) and Caven Chia (builder and driver).

Team captain Isaac, who hopes to use his skills to contribute to Singapore’s defence, has competed in Macau and in the US.

“The competitions in the States were a lot bigger, close to 1,000 teams, so this one is smaller, but this is more representative of the world,” he told The Straits Times.

The Singapore team got the package in April and started working on it in May.

“The boys have spent a lot of extra personal time on this,” said ACS(I) maths teacher Kenneth Wee, who is escorting the team.

“Working on robotics means spending most of their waking day – it requires a lot of commitment.”

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