Six robots skitter across what looks like a green boxing ring, scooping up orange and blue plastic balls from a trench and sifting the orange "contaminants" from the blue "water molecules". The robots, bearing varying degrees of resemblance to "WALL-E", are each operated by a team of teenagers who have lovingly designed them and adorned them with the flag of their own home country.
If the robots are poised to take over, these kids are ready for it. Across the street from the White House earlier this week, the FIRST Global robotics competition was in full swing, with students from nearly every nation around the world coming to show off their engineering prowess.
Founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, FIRST offers students far and wide a chance to learn about robotics and engineering. At this year's championships, the event went global, and the arena felt like the 1990s Nickelodeon show "Global GUTS" with more modern tech, while concourses felt like a bustling high school science fair, with students working diligently on their creations while snacking on cheese pizza and signing each other's t-shirts.
Not all students had a simple time getting here. Team Hope, a team of Syrian refugees based out of Lebanon, competed here despite being unable to safely return to their home country, as did teens from Iran, who were unable to get their robotics kit due to sanctions but were able to send their designs to a U.S. based team who assembled the robot for them here in the States.
But the team whose journey garnered the most attention? The all-girls team representing Afghanistan, who were initially denied a visa but eventually were granted one, reportedly requested specifically by President Trump. (The initial visa denial was not related to Trump's travel ban, which does not cover Afghanistan.)
Not long ago, women in Afghanistan were required by Taliban leadership to be covered nearly head-to-toe and were barely allowed to leave the home; that young Afghan women today are not only accessing an education, but are able to meet young people from around the world and cheer on a robot of their own making, is something beautiful.
Afghanistan was not alone in fielding an all-female team. On Tuesday, first daughter Ivanka Trump stopped by FIRST Global to open the day with a celebration the six all-female teams, which also included Jordan, Ghana, Brunei, Vanuatu, as well as Team USA.
Here in the U.S., there has been some heartening news on the girls-in-STEM front recently. Overall, America's math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have risen since the 1990s, though remain disappointing when compared to the rest of the globe. In 2014, a technology and engineering component was added to the test, and in the US, young women on average scored three points higher than young men, an important step toward closing the "gender gap" in science and engineering.
But not all STEM fields see equal participation by women and men. While social sciences and, increasingly, biological sciences see at least half of bachelor's degrees awarded to women, and with mathematics and the physical sciences not far behind, it is the specific fields of computer science and engineering where the gap looms large.
Globally, the story is also complicated. According to the World Economic Forum's 2016 Global Gender Gap Report, while 30 percent of young men worldwide in postsecondary schools get a STEM degree, that falls to only 16 percent for young women worldwide. The passing this week of Maryam Mirzakhani, a young Iranian mathematician who was the only woman to win a Fields Medal, is both a reminder that genius knows no gender or border, and a reminder of the importance of cultivating female talent in STEM fields around the world.
In 2015, the National Center for Education Statistics released comparative data about what percent of eighth-graders in various countries said yes to the question "I like science." Gender differences were statistically significant on the question in the United States, Australia, Italy, the UK, and more. (One country where there was no difference? Saudi Arabia. And in Turkey, the gender gap was statistically significant, but running in the other direction, with more young women reporting liking science than young men.)
Boosting STEM education opportunities for young women globally is one critical way that the U.S. can promote women's equality, as well as economic development, around the world. The robots are coming, whether we like it or not, and will change our economy in dramatic ways. While anxiety about automation rises in some quarters, watching the students at FIRST Global is a reminder that there will be people making those robots, and we'd do well to make sure young women around the world are encouraged to be a part of that future.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."