The first international robotics competition for high schoolers made headlines before it even started — and after the event was over as well.
First there was the story of the all-girl Afghanistan team, which was denied visas to attend for unknown reasons.
Then there was the post-competition story: All six teens on the Burundi team were reported missing on Wednesday, the day after the competition ended, with reports that two of them were headed to Canada.
At the last minute, the Afghan team did get visas. They waved their country’s flag during the parade of nations at the event’s opening ceremonies. And they showed off their robot. Like all the entries, it was designed to separate balls representing water particles and water contaminants, among other tasks.
So how did the Afghan team do?
“The girls did a good job in the competition,” says Roya Mahboob. She’s a tech entrepreneur from Afghanistan and the CEO of the Digital Citizen Fund, the nonprofit which sponsored the team.
“They did much better than many of the other countries, but of course we could still do better. We had less experience and practice,” Mahboob says.
They ranked 114th out of 163 teams — ahead of the U.S. and the United Kingdom teams.
And they didn’t go home empty-handed. They did win an award for “courageous achievement” — for showing a “can-do attitude’ throughout the Challenge, even under difficult circumstances, or when things do not go as planned,” according to First Global, the nonprofit that organized the event.
The other two “courageous achievement” winners were the teams from South Sudan and Oman.
The Afghan team was thrilled by the award: “They got so excited, they were very happy,” Mahboob says.
Mexican billionaire and First Global founding member Ricardo Salinas announced during the competition that next year’s international robotics competition will be held in Mexico City.
The Afghanistan team hopes to be back.