Madagascar: How one challenge created national stars

For Team Madagascar, the 2020 FIRST Global Challenge was a chance for the students to broaden their horizons. They had to collaborate remotely, facing a lack of stable internet access and sometimes electricity outages. However, the team didn’t give up, and put in all of their effort to submit each challenge on time, working all night long to meet some deadlines.

And then came the challenge titled “Contact Your Government.” As part of making STEM education accessible to more students, we posed an ambitious prompt to teams: to reach out to their government with a detailed pitch for how their officials can build access to STEM education in their country. Several teams received supportive responses, and some even met with officials to discuss the topic further. But for Team Madagascar, this challenge was life-changing.

The team first approached the Ministry of Youth and Sports with their proposal to expand an existing project called “CoderBus,” which involves traveling with a bus full of computers and whiteboards all over Madagascar to provide free programming courses. The initiative has so far benefited more than 300 youths, and the goal is to expand their reach to even more students. The Ministry responded positively, and shortly thereafter, the Ministry of Culture  and Communication reached out to the team to meet with them and express their support as well. Minister Lalatiana Andriatongarivo was immediately impressed and took a stand to support them fully for the rest of the season.

“It is a national pride to have Malagasy young people excelling in innovation and STEM,” she said. “The Ministry of Culture and Communication will support the team with full-board accommodation, any equipment they might need, and, most importantly, moral support and encouragement, which are critical to face this kind of international competition. Their determination, hard work, and grit are values that need to be nurtured.”

Within a week, the 2020 FIRST Global Challenge was in the headlines of all major newspapers in the country. They made national news, gaining sponsorship and support from several organizations and individuals. They were provided with a dedicated basecamp, supercomputers, full internet access, and a data plan. An engineer even offered the team free lessons in SOLIDWORKS’ CAD software.

The team was also provided with a platform to advocate for STEM with their own dedicated television show titled “Gasy Robotika” (Malagasy Robotics). It aired during prime time on national television twice a week on a channel reaching all regions in Madagascar, even remote and rural areas. On the show, the team shared their journey taking part in the FIRST Global Challenge; they discussed their passion for robotics, FIRST Global, and their hopes for winning the competition.

“We want to win on behalf of all Malagasy children and young people so they know that they, too, can achieve their dreams, no matter how hard and difficult the path is,” the team said. “We would have already won if we can inspire others to never give up on their dreams and to invest in robotics to better their communities. Because that’s what the FIRST Global Challenge is about: connecting communities.”

As their following grew, their social media posts gained thousands of engagements. People from all over the country expressed their pride and support for the team.

As the season came to a close, the nation marked their calendars for the final celebration announcing the award winners. The Ministry organized a special live viewing with hundreds in attendance; everyone sat in anticipation, wondering if and when the team would be featured. So when Team Madagascar was announced at the end of the broadcast, the room erupted in applause. They ranked fifth out of more than 100 teams, and had also won third place for the Sofia Kovalevskaya Award for International Journey.

In just a few weeks, Team Madagascar made STEM a national topic and rose to serve as STEM role models to other youth in their country.

“The whole country has taken interest in the FIRST Global Challenge and principles of connecting communities. Our hope is that this momentum will inspire more young Malagasy people in getting into STEM fields. We also plan to leverage this institutional support to advance our aspiration to expand robotics and STEM to reach as many young kids in the country [as possible]. Thank you so much FIRST Global for making this happen in our country.”

Source : FIRST Global 2020 Impact Report

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