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Michael Davies Sergbeh, left, and Gregline Kumba Natt hold the Liberian flag. 

Zahra Ahmad

Building a robot is one of many skills these students have mastered

Michael Davies Sergbeh has never let obstacles stand in the way of acquiring an education that could serve as his ticket to a world beyond his small village in Liberia. As a child he worked at his stepfather’s garage to afford private school, a necessity because of the sorry state of most public schools in his native country. Earlier this year, when he was chosen to represent Liberia in a robotics competition for high school students from 157 countries, he wasn’t discouraged by his relative inexperience in the field and by his school’s bare-bones science facilities.  

“I had never really worked on a computer before, but I learned from my mentor so that I could teach my teammates,” he says, referring to six other students attending nearby schools. At times, the only light in their workroom came from a cellphone. But Team Liberia persisted. This week the students were rewarded with a 12th place finish in the FIRST Global Challenge held in Washington, D.C.

“I never thought I would be able to build a robot that can move, pick things up, and lift itself up,” says Sergbeh, the team’s captain, “so ranking this high is amazing. It’s really encouraged us to pursue STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] because it’s very important in furthering Liberia’s future and bettering the world.” 

The model for this week’s global event is a U.S.-based robotics competition begun a quarter-century ago by serial entrepreneur and inventor Dean Kamen. “These students are living proof of what can be achieved if you get an idea, a task, and dream, and combine them all together,” Kamen says. “This competition is meant to reach students in areas that need STEM the most, developing countries, those who face adversity every day and [who also] are their countries’ future leaders.”

Liberia was one of 60 countries whose teams had no prior experience building robots. The competition was designed to be an opportunity for students like Sergbeh to showcase their abilities.

“The selection process varied by country for this inaugural year,” says FIRST Global President Joe Sestak in Manchester, New Hampshire, who is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania. “We had some teams that held a regional type of selection process with robots; others could only afford proctor testing to determine who would represent their country.” 

Sestak began calling STEM organizations around the world last fall to spread the word about the competition. Those organizations were asked to find mentors who spoke English and had a background in technology and software programming. Mentors then identified students interested in building a basic robot. More than 600 people eventually lent a hand. 

FIRST Global’s theme was access to clean water, one of the 14 Grand Challenges of Engineering identified by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. Two three-team alliances worked to see whose robots could clear a hypothetical river of contaminants. The contaminants were represented by blue and orange balls. The robots were expected to sort the balls into the appropriate bins and then hang from a beam before a virtual river flooded and swept them away.

Reaching out to Africa

Liberia was one of 40 African countries that fielded teams. And Sestek says the organization deliberately sought students who had traditionally had little exposure to high-quality STEM education. 

“We didn’t want just the top schools from Africa to participate, we wanted those who needed it most,” Sestak says. “Only four of the schools from Africa were in the top 1% of their socioeconomic class.” The great majority of students were from the lower end of the socioeconomic class, he notes. 

Another explicit goal of the competition was to provide opportunities for women. “It's really hard for girls to pursue a career in science in Rwanda, and in Africa in general, because it's expected of woman to get married and have kids when you graduate high school,” says Ikirezedi Poala, one of seven members—four boys, three girls—from Rwanda.

Poala says competitions like this show young girls there are opportunities if they stay focused. “I think people are beginning to become more open minded towards the idea of women pursuing a career before settling down, because they see us succeeding in things like FIRST Global,” she says. The Rwandan team placed 68th.

Hamood and Ali Nasser Al-Saadi prepare their robot for competition at the FIRST Global Competition.

Ghalib Alharthy

For Hamood and Ali Nasser Al-Saadi, opportunity came in the form of a dedicated mentor who saw they were skilled in mathematics and science. Growing up on a farm in a valley between the mountains in Sharqiyah, in northern Oman, the twin boys have been deaf and mute since birth and didn’t attend school until age 9.

“Their father didn’t know about the resources that were available to them,” says their mentor and teacher, Ghalib Alharthy. “When I started teaching a class at the Abdullah bin Zeid for Basic Education for deaf and mute students, they stood out to me because they’re very clever and can stay focused on a topic for hours.” 

Unlike those on the Liberian team, the Omani twins had considerable previous experience with robotics competitions. They took top honors 3 years running in the FIRST Lego League in Oman, an international competition in which elementary and middle school students build a LEGO Mindstorm robot.

Asked what they enjoy most about the competition, in which they finished 39th, the boys turned to each other and smiled before Hamood signed, “Ali is the hands-on guy, and he loves building the robots. I like programming the robot to do whatever we need it to do, and driving it.” And they weren’t fazed by all the hoopla surrounding this week’s event. “I was nervous and excited when I walked into the arena, it was so big and there were so many people,” Ali signed. “But as soon as the competition started, I knew exactly what to do and when our robot hung, I was so happy.” 

In addition to the obstacles that most of the individual students had to overcome, FIRST Global officials faced the challenge of obtaining visas for each team. Both the Gambian and Afghan teams were initially denied visas—the Afghan team’s plight became a media sensation—but in the end all were able to attend.

“It’s been a blessing to receive the amount of support and attention we’ve gotten,” Lida Azizi, a student from Herat, Afghanistan, said through a translator. “We're hoping it encourages other young girls in Afghanistan to pursue higher education without fear. It feels great to bring a medal back home.” The all-girls Afghan team finished 114th overall, but joined with the Omani twins in receiving the Rajaa Cherkaoui El Moursli Award for Courageous Achievement.

Fresh off their initial success, Kamen and Sestack have already begun planning regional competitions as a prelude to next year’s FIRST Global competition in Mexico City. Many students said they hoped to use the event as a springboard for their STEM advocacy work back home. 

“In my free time I teach at a community center in Pleebo, [Liberia],” Sergbeh says. “I teach primary education like simple math, science, and English. It’s great practice for me, and it helps the younger kids. I can’t wait to go back and share this experience with them. Hopefully it will show them they can do great things, too.”