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Cambodian Teens Hope to Win at Global Robot Making Contest


​​Kim Vanthen (left) database manager at Caring for Cambodia and high school robot makers in Siem Reap. (Photo courtesy of ​Kim Vanthen)

“When I was 12 years old, I dreamed of standing on the stage and becoming famous because of my inventions,” said Chanty, 17, a high school student in Siem Reap. Next month, Chanty and her five teammates will travel to the United States to compete in the first robotics competition organized by not-for-profit group First Global.

It’s a warm Sunday morning, but unlike other teens their age, Chanty and her friends sat in front of a computer, talking with a mentor in the United States about building robots.

“When I was 12 years old, I dreamed of standing on the stage and becoming famous because of my inventions,” said Chanty, 17, a high school student in Siem Reap. “I liked playing around with my dad’s CD player and wondered how it worked.”

Chanty comes from a poor family. Her mother is a housewife, and her father makes a living from fishing, barely earning enough to provide for her and her 12 siblings.​

But things might be about to change.

Next month, Chanty and her five teammates will travel to the United States to compete in the first robotics competition organized by not-for-profit group First Global.

Watch: Cambodian teens are preparing for their first robotics competition.

“I have mixed feelings of happiness and nervousness,” she says.

Chanty’s sister, Chhert Sochea who is a housewife and lives in Siem Reap district says she was happy to learn that her sister’s hard work was beginning to pay off. “It’s something we never thought would happen because my family is poor,” she said.

In January, local NGO Caring for Cambodia (CFC) chose the team from its Information and Communications Technology program at two public high schools in Siem Reap. The group will compete against teams from 163 other countries.

Chanthou, 18, the team leader, was “overjoyed” to be chosen. “Words cannot describe my feelings... I never thought that I could attend the course and even go to compete in the US.”

The team is provided a toolkit and a US-based mentor is assigned to provide them guidance. The hope is that the program will inspire youngsters to pursue careers in science and technology.

The theme of the competition this year is to “provide access to fresh and drinkable water” and as such the robots will gain points by purifying contaminated water samples.

Watch: the game instruction by First Global

Christin Spoolstra, CFC deputy director, said the students had worked hard on the project. “They’ve worked hard, and they’ve cooperated and collaborated together and they’ve built something that they never would have imagined that they could build.”

The team began building the robot in March and have worked four or five days a week on the project ever since when they had time off from their studies. “What I see in our Cambodian team is their effort. Everything is new to them, including engineering, building the kit from first Global, and coding and programming the robot,” said Kim Vanthen, CFC database manager, who also mentors the team.

The winners will be presented with “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” awards based on their scores in categories such as collaboration and team spirit.

Both Chanty and Chanthou hope their team will win the competition.

“For us, win or lose, we think that as an inspiration to their fellow students, to their teachers, to their community, to their families, and hopefully to the whole country,” Spoolstra said.

Jamie Amelio, CEO and founder of CFC, said the students were “educating an entire generation of what hope looks like, what a different world for Cambodia looks like.”

The group hopes that the competition will provide a boost to CFC, which hopes to expand its science and technical programs in Cambodia.

Chanty has a message for other students who haven’t been given the same opportunities as her. “Don’t be hopeless, because of your poor family situation and people looking down on you. You have to be committed and study hard.”

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

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