Palestinian, Israeli teens bring their robots to D.C.

Palestinian coach Anas Atahedmi shows off his team’s robot at an international high school robotics competition in Washington. Photo by Dan Schere.

Not more than 50 feet apart, Israeli and Palestinian teenagers are competing to see who can build a better robot.

Amid the din at first-ever international high school robotics competition this week, the Israelis and Palestinians represent two of 157 locales around the world that sent teens to Washington to display their STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) prowess.

The Israeli robot resembles a forklift with its vertical pulley system. The Palestinian robot has an incline to transport balls to the top. Once there they fall into a holding area.

“The balls come in and by using two conveyers it brings the ball up, and then using sensors it sorts them,” explains 17-year-old Mor Taboh of the Israeli team. “Orange balls go to the top and blue balls go to the bottom.”

The purpose of each team’s robot is to pick up a ball, transport it and drop it where it has to go.

“This is the only team’s robot with three wheels,” says Anas Atahedmi, the Palestinian team’s coach.

During the two-day event, organized by the Alexandria, Va.-based nonprofit

First Global, teams are vying to put their robots through their paces, separating blue balls from orange ones and moving them to a raised platform. When the robots are done with their task, their student commanders use the remote controls to send them to suspend themselves from a bar.

From the stands, coaches are cheering their teams on. In the closing seconds of one game, a man yells “C’mon, get off the ground” as his team attempts to lift its robot onto the bar.

Each round is over in two and a half minutes.

As the teams ready themselves for their final competition of the day, the mood at the Israeli table is celebratory. Team members wear blue shirts, and some are sporting headbands displaying Israeli flags. The team’s seven members from the Jusidman Science Center for Youth at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheva are all smiles and every few minutes can be seen dancing in a circle to the cheer of “Hey, hey Yisrael.”

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before,” Mor says. “It’s very exciting and fascinating,”

The Palestinian team has three girls from Saint Joseph School in Ramallah and their coach. Emelyana Ghanim, 16, wears a pair of goggles as she inspects her team’s robot in the final moments before their match.

“We started [studying robots] when I was in class and we started with a small robot,” she says. “This is the first time for me I’ve joined a competition like this.”

Israeli and Palestinian robots never go head to head. Each team is part of other groups that compete against each other. Both finish the day on the losing end of their matches.

Mor says the Israeli team studies the robots of other teams. Before a match they discuss strategy with the countries they are allied with.

The Israeli coach, 33-year old Gilat Malka, says her team was chosen by First Global just a month and a half ago, so they had to hustle to build their robot.

Palestinian coach Atahedmi, 29, a teacher at Saint Joseph School, says he has coached and refereed for the school’s robot league.

“We were establishing a robotics team in the Saint Joseph School and this [Palestinian team] is the result of that,” he says.

As Atahedmi speaks, his voice is drowned out for a moment by the Israeli team, which once again breaks into “Hey, hey Yisrael.” Asked what he thinks about being in the presence of so many countries, including Israel just steps away, he says the event is simply a friendly scientific competition. But he acknowledges that his people and the Israelis have had a “history” of conflict.

“If you can just close your eyes, you can forget about that,” he says. “We hope for a very good result.”

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