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Cambodian Teens Gain ‘Coopetition’ Experience in Global Robotics Challenge

Members of the Cambodian robotics team raise their national flags to celebrate after winning their first competition during the First Global Challenge robotics competition in Washington, DC, Sunday, July 17, 2017. (Nem Sopheakpanha/VOA Khmer)

Cambodia’s teenage team placed 22nd out of 163 in the FIRST Global robotics challenge held this month in Washington, DC.

Chanthy, one of the six-member team, said after the competition closed on July 18 that she was “not disappointed because there is always winners and losers.”

The group of young scientists aged between 16 and 18 were selected to compete in the international technology competition from their schools in rural Siem Reap province.

A local NGO, Caring for Cambodia (CFC), picked the team from its information and communications technology program.

Despite not picking up any awards, the team’s appointed mentor, Kim Vanthen, said the result was better than expected.

Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST Global, which organized the event, said the challenge was about much more than coming in first place.

“It’s not about the robots, it’s about the kids. So, which robot wins deep down I don’t care. The teams win; the kids win. They all go away with self-confidence,” Kamen said.

Ung Savy, CFC’s country director, who led the team to the competition, agreed. “I am not interested in winning or losing. The important thing is that we came here to compete on the global stage.”

Narin Jameson was one of several Cambodian-Americans who attended the competition to support the team. “I am very proud of them. We developed from nothing to come and compete on the international stage,” Jameson said.

The FIRST Global competition is aimed at encouraging young people from around the world to use science and technology to solve global problems. This year’s competition focused on access to clean water, with the robots scored according to their ability to purify contaminated water samples.

“The goal here is to show these kids that they can use technology not as a weapon, not to fight each other, but as a tool to connect each other,” said Kamen.

Chanthy said that cooperation and team work were the most important experiences she gained from taking part. “I gained a lot of experience in discussion, working in teams, and correcting each other,” Chanthy said.

Chanthou, the Cambodian team leader, said the group had “learned to work in a team, and gained a lot of experience I never learned before.”

Teen Robot Builders from 157 Countries Compete
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Following the competition, CFC hopes to expand its science and technology programs in Cambodian schools.

“If there were more experts in STEM, we would be able to build more robots to help economic growth in our country,” said Savy, another participant, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Chanthy hopes to share her knowledge with future generations interested in building robots.

“In 10 years, I want to create a female team to build robots and participate in the FIRST Global challenge,” Chanthy said. “My team want to build a bigger robot to collect trash to recycle or put in appropriate dump sites.”

Next year, the FIRST Global competition will take place in Mexico City.

Some of the students’ personal details were withheld by CFC under its child protection policy.