On Thursday morning in Louisville, KY, thousands of grade schoolers gathered together in the halls of the Kentucky Exposition Center, awaiting their moment on the stage to march in the “Parade of Nations.” The children, donning costumes from Stormtroopers to starfish, hailed from more than 30 countries across the world–from Saudi Arabia to Macau to Kazakhstan.

What drew them to Kentucky? A passion for building competitive robots.

The 10th annual VEX Robotics World Championship–the world’s largest, with 20,000 students–has been hosted in Louisville for the last three years. The program, presented by the Northrop Grumman Foundation, has grown rapidly, by about 30% each year, Vicki Grisanti, communications director of the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation (REC) told me last year. The competition includes: VEX IQ (elementary and middle school), VEX Robotics Competition (middle and high school), and VEX U (college-level).

Earning a spot at the VEX Robotics World Championship is no easy feat. In Kentucky, a state-wide championship drew about 50 high school teams–competing for about eight spots total at the world championship. An all-girl team of first year students from the Kenton County Academies of Innovation and Technology in Fort Mitchell, KY, who had competed in the state-wide tournament, came to the Expo Center as volunteers, and explained the process. The electoral college for robotics is a bit complicated, I learned–each state is allotted a certain number of teams at the world championship, based on how many teams the state has.

The teams have been working all year to develop robots that can master the new challenge, called “Starstruck.” While last year’s competition, “Nothing But Net” involved shooting baskets, this year’s tournament is played on a 12-by-12 foot volleyball-like field, in which the robots must pick up star- and cube-shaped objects and hurl them over a “fence.”

While many robots last year featured a conveyor belt-like system to scoop up the balls and spit them out, several of this year’s robots have arms that can pick the object up, and the aim is not quite as important. Also, “the body of the robot is less sturdy” this year, said Claire Walker, a student at Kent County, since the robots don’t have the same obstacles in the field that they did last year.

But VEX Worlds doesn’t just teach kids to learn STEM skills–with teams from across the world, breaking down language and cultural barriers is another important lesson these students learn. Although translators in Mandarin and Spanish are provided, many students must overcome the language barrier in creative ways. And working side-by-side with teammates from different backgrounds provides a chance for cross-cultural learning, as well. For the first time last year, a team from Syria came to the championship, with the help of the Lebanon-based Multi Aid Programs, with the goal of helping fight stereotypes about Syrian refugees. And a team arrived from Kazakhstan this year, for the first time ever.

SEE: Photos: ‘The Olympics of Robotics’ shows kids across globe embrace future of robots (TechRepublic)

To address the gender gap when it comes to women in tech, a new initiative called Girl Powered aims to double the number of girls on robotics teams in the next five years. The program, spearheaded by the REC Foundation and VEX Robotics, offers resources to help girls–with help from their mentors–succeed in designing, building, programming, and driving robots. In 2016, the REC Foundation gave grants to about 50 teams through Girl Powered, and created an online challenge called “In Her Words Storybook.”

While a program like Girl Powered is making a broader impact on girls in robotics, one high schooler has taken a hands-on approach to the issue.

Mirabelle Scholten, a 16-year-old from Seattle, has been to Haiti three times this year to help train an all-female middle school team called the Regina Assumpta Robotics team. By helping train the girls on that team, who might not have had access to the same level of STEM education as she did, Scholten is contributing to a larger effort to empower girls in science and math. And not only did she help the team develop its robot–Scholten also became involved when the girls needed travel visas. “When they went to the visa program, only eight girls could come,” she said. “We wrote letters to the senators and congressman in Washington state to help get support for the visas.”

The Regina Assumpta team is set to arrive in Louisville on Saturday–one of 6,670 teams to compete in the VEX IQ Challenge Middle School World Championship.

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