WASHINGTON - A four-member team from Singapore's Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) is among 157 country teams competing in Washington DC in the world's first international Robot Olympics for high-school students.
The FIRST Global Challenge got an unusual publicity boost when the all-female Afghanistan high school team from Herat was initially refused entry visas by the US. 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 was the first time they had travelled out of their countries. For some, like 16-year-old Nepali Rubi Balami from a school in Pharping in a rural area southwest of Kathamandu, and her team mates, it was a first travelling 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 current Robot Olympics under the banner "FIRST Global".
The concept, he explained, was to empower bright young minds through science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to power accelerated economic growth particularly in developing countries.
"This will require the collective efforts of individuals, corporations, governments, and non-profits willing to invest in STEM education and infrastructure, and provide equal opportunities to all students," he said.
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 on July 18.
"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 in an interview among crowds of busy high-school students.
"You have these young students from across the world and they are here representing their countries but more so interacting with everyone else," said Dr Wilczynski, who is also co-chair of the executive advisory board of First. "It symbolises the sense of cooperation that really exists in the world."
Robot competitions are not new, but the idea of the first Olympics-scale or global robot competition was conceived about two years ago, building on the networks and infrastructure of the existing competitions, he said.
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, where they have finished top in national and been 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 Lee, who hopes to use his skills to contribute to Singapore's defence, has competed in Macau and in the US before.
"The competitions in the States were a lot bigger, close to a thousand teams, so this one is smaller, but this is more representative of the world," he told The Straits Times.
"This is an interesting experience, you get to work with people from all over the world. Prior to this competition, we set up an online chat channel and we have been active on it, exchanging tips, there's a lot of emphasis on cooperation," he said. Teams consulted each other and shared tips through an online chat room set up for the contest, he said.
The Singapore team got the package in April and started working on it in May. More than three months of work went into it.
"The boys have spent a lot of extra personal time on this," ACS(I) math teacher Kenneth Wee, who is escorting the team, told The Straits Times. "Working on robotics means spending most of their waking day, it requires a lot of commitment."