At a global robotics competition, teens put aside grown-up conflicts to form unlikely alliances


As six robots battled it out on the floor of the DAR Constitution Hall’s auditorium during the FIRST Global Challenge competition Tuesday afternoon, a cheer rose above the din of voices echoing across the stands.

“Team Hope! Team Hope! Team Hope!”

The cheering came from a corner of the stadium where a group of boys from Team Lebanon — wearing rainbow clown wigs — stood next to Team Palestine. They, and teams from Libya and Jordan, were lending their voices to support a group of Syrian refugees, known as Team Hope. It was one of many times when teens would spontaneously break out into cheers for competitors.

When they weren’t cheering, hundreds of teens from 157 countries mingled, chatted and leaned in for selfies in the sweltering corridors of the concert hall at the first international Global Challenge competition. In between making final adjustments on their robots, a bonding experience that has become central to this competition, they signed each other’s T-shirts and exchanged pins. If they did not speak the same language, they all understood the thrill, the frustration and the anxiety that comes with competition.

Next year it will be hosted in Mexico City.

These are precisely the kinds of friendships FIRST Global founder Dean Kamen, an inventor, hoped to build — ones that crossed languages, cultures and geopolitical frontiers. His lofty vision is one in which graduates of this program put aside politics to solve the world’s most pressing challenges, like shortages of clean water and the myriad problems wrought by global climate change. In this year’s competition, teams built robots to sort contaminated water from clean water — actually orange and blue plastic balls — to get them thinking about the real-life challenge that many face getting enough clean water.

“If we can get kids from around the world to deal with the same issues … we could compete on the same team,” Kamen said on Sunday evening, in remarks at the opening ceremony. “You don’t have to have self-inflicted wounds created by arbitrary differences and politics.”

This cauldron of competition — with countries sending some of their brightest and best aspiring engineers — forged plenty of unusual friendships. Team Armenia and Team Turkey, who come from countries whose relations are strained — were allied in one match. The Armenian team also helped Lesotho make modifications to their robot.