How a Robotics Competition Could Transform Algeria — And the World

The Algerian robotics team looked worried as they huddled around their boxy machine. It was the opening day of the First Global international robotics challenge — which brought youth from 160 countries to Washington, D.C. in July to compete and test their mechanical engineering skills — and the robot had gone offline with minutes to go before their first match.

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Sara Narimene Boukais, an 18-year-old student from Algiers. The robot had disconnected from the patchy Wifi in the D.A.R. Constitution Hall; the team would just have to wait for it to reconnect. Accepting that reality, the four team members picked up their robot and carried it into the cool, dark auditorium.

Frustrating, yes. But this ordeal was exactly the point of the inaugural First Global Challenge. Officially billed as an exercise to “ignite a passion” for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) among the world’s youth, the Olympic-style competition has an even loftier aim: to encourage the next generation to collaborate toward resolving critical global issues using their STEM skills. Dealing with stress, working together productively, solving problems — and even just realizing when to move on to a different problem — are just as much a part of the competition as scoring points. “Those are called learning opportunities,” explained volunteer and head judge Andy Marshall.

Participants and organizers alike believe this event is poised to spur global transformation. In Algeria alone, the competition’s emphasis on STEM skills could create new opportunities for a workforce facing serious challenges. But the hope is that positive local changes in Algeria and elsewhere will ripple out across the world, strengthening diplomacy and cooperation, and inspiring innovation with a moral bent.

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