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Nearly a thousand high school kids from all over the world are in Washington, D.C., this week for what is being billed as the first-ever international robotics competition. And it's truly international. Some teams are coming from remote islands, others from areas without reliable Internet or places of conflict. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf went to check it out.
KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Eighteen-year-old Karston Shaerz is worried that his team's robot isn't working right.
KARSTON SHAERZ: So we just noticed that one of the arms has slide off handle.
LONSDORF: It's probably a casualty of two long plane rides across an ocean. His team is from the Caribbean island of Grenada, and they had to get a robot all the way here to D.C.
SHAERZ: So we wrapped it up in, like, foam, bubble wrap and duct taped it down and made sure that it was secure. It actually got lost.
LONSDORF: They eventually found it at a different airport gate. A lot of the teams here have similar stories - multiple plane rides, long layovers, complicated visas. An all-girls team from Afghanistan first had their visas denied, and then President Trump intervened to allow them into the country. That got a lot of media attention. But there are kids from all over the place.
MICHESE BALA: I'm Michese Bala (ph) from Runda.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #1: From the Philippines.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: We're from Senegal.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: From Team Australia.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #2: Team USA.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: Team Bangladesh.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: From Team Lebanon.
UNIDENTIFIED GIRL #3: I'm from Nepal.
UNIDENTIFIED BOY #5: Tokyo.
LONSDORF: A hundred and fifty-seven countries total. The organization running this is called FIRST Global, which was founded by Dean Kamen. He's the guy who invented the Segway. He says the point of this competition is to make robotics as cool as traditional sports.
DEAN KAMEN: Let's prove to kids that engineering, that inventing is every bit as fun, exciting and rewarding as bouncing a ball.
LONSDORF: His group has done these competitions in the U.S. But for this one he wanted to recruit teams who might not have ever even tried robotics before, so he got major tech companies to design and donate parts and put them in standard kits that could be shipped anywhere around the world. Kids don't need a sophisticated shop or tools to build anything.
KAMEN: It's sort of like plug-and-play in the world of robotics. They have motors and actuators and sensors and power supplies.
LONSDORF: And aluminum bars and gears and sprockets, screws, nuts, bolts.
KAMEN: And in a matter of a few weeks, most of these kids turned this big pile of stuff into working robots that can accomplish a task.
LONSDORF: That task in this case is sorting blue and orange balls. The teams are randomly paired against each other, and they earn points based on the number of balls they sort.
KAMEN: And we're going to see right now an unloading from Team Venezuela and one of the judges trying to funnel and help some of those balls in there. Hopefully they don't stall out. Those points should start registering up here. You see the score jump to 36. Goodness gracious, what a good jump for them.
LONSDORF: Neither of the robots nor the game are particularly flashy or complex. But that doesn't seem to be the point here. Daniel McGowan from Team Australia says it's the diversity of teams' backgrounds and experience levels that makes this exciting.
DANIEL MCGOWAN: It's not about how much you've got or whether you've done it before or not. Everyone can have that great idea that drives it forward that little inch more.
LONSDORF: Back at Team Grenada, it's almost put its robot back together after the long flight. Karston Shaerz proudly points out that this is the first robot any of them have ever built.
SHAERZ: In Grenada they don't really have programs. We are like pioneers. We are trying to bring it back home and launch a club so that we can have students getting into robotics and following that study.
LONSDORF: And they can give some tips on how to pack a robot for international travel, too. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News, Washington.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio, our introduction to this piece describes this event as "the first-ever international robotics competition." We should have been more specific. Organizers say this event is the first global robotics competition specifically for high school students. There have been other robotics competitions with teams from multiple countries.]
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