This summer, the world of academic competitions was abuzz with what was perhaps the most buzzed about high school STEM competition ever. Not only was there a series of firsts in the competition itself, but there was a mix of politics, international intrigue, and yes even a President stepping in with a last minute game changer! The perfect makings for the next big J.J. Abrams hit movie!

When 6 teenage girls from Afghanistan wanted to come to the United States to participate in the inaugural FIRST Global Challenge – a robotics competition geared towards promoting a passion for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) in the leaders of tomorrow – they were stopped dead in their tracks when their visas were denied.

Even though their robot had made it to the competition, after several attempts to gain entry, the 6 young Afghan engineers were probably ready to give up as the competition date neared. Then something unexpected happened, something extraordinarily out of the ordinary (at least for this political cycle). President Donald J. Trump – the man who’s every word led us to believe he would be the last person to do so – intervened to permit the girls entry for the competition.

This news got our team at ICS thinking – since everything these days seems to be about politics – we needed to ask, why did President Trump choose to intervene on these girls’ behalf while attempting to ban millions of other Muslims from entry to the country? Was there ever a danger of letting them in to compete? And taking it a step further, this question quickly expands to the broader notion of, “How should the United States handle educating the next generation of scientists and engineers from foreign countries?” What if we know they are not going to be staying in the US and contributing to our economy? Does that matter in the long-run? 

We wanted to bring this up not to push our own opinions on what is right or wrong, but to attempt to have an open discussion on how academic competitions at the international stage like this can have an impact not only on the participants, but on the fundamental nature of our society. More so than sports and international athletic competitions, academic challenges have the potential to change the future because of their affect on who will be the next leaders in important technological areas such as science and engineering. With such amazing power to change the world, ICS is on a mission to bring out scientific knowledge about how can we maximize this power for good.

So, we decided to have a short thought experiment (admittedly a fairly surface-level experiment given the complexity of the topic) on this question by posing basic arguments from both sides. So here they are, our surface-level arguments for and against educating with our arms wide open. We would love to hear your input.


Bring them on!

On the one hand, we can say, “Yes, bring them on!” The United States should be positioning our country as the global leader in STEM by bringing future leaders here and showing them our American culture and expertise. Having a global challenge where our students compete against the best and brightest from other nations ultimately improves everyone’s skills, so we all win. There are innumerable accounts of foreign scientists, engineers, and mathematicians coming to the US and adding to our economy, not to mention global prosperity (we can attribute much of our technologies today to foreign immigrants).

So, what if we expand the question to where we know the foreign students will not be returning to the US and contributing to our economy? Is it the case that any knowledge they gain from their educational experiences here will be going back with them to their country? Well, we then might make the argument for allowing them to participate by stating how the issues and problems that many international competitions challenge students to solve are global in nature. In these cases, figuring out solutions doesn’t just make a participant’s home country a better place, but will make the world a better place. And we will all win.

Furthermore we could argue that these experiences in the US for foreign students are a great way to highlight American culture, and to help encourage students to bring American values back to their home countries, thereby indirectly helping us avert future conflicts. Unfortunately, we can never know for sure how the knowledge gained in these programs will be used, but there are many obvious benefits to allowing and encouraging these global opportunities to share knowledge. So this brings us to the other side of the coin.


Where's the wall?

On the other hand, the argument can be made that by encouraging students in other countries to embrace and excel in STEM we risk falling behind in those areas ourselves – areas critical to our national defense and economy. If we fall behind too much, we risk becoming dependent on other nations for new technologies, and risk having inferior technology for national defense and other economic drivers.

So should we shut the doors and focus on educating our own to be the best they can be? On this side of the argument, defenders of the wall may highlight examples of foreigners who were educated in the United States and went on to join terrorist groups – perhaps the most recent high profile example being “Lady Al-Queda” an MIT-trained neuroscientist from Pakistan who was convicted in 2010 of attempting to murder Americans and sentenced to 86 years in federal prison. We can never know what any individual will do with their education, so is it worth the risk bringing foreigners here to get trained through our programs? This is the ultimate question, do the benefits of global knowledge sharing and bringing people around the world together behind education outweigh the potential risks to our national economy or society? 


This article is not an attempt to plant our flag and state which argument we believe is right. This article is an attempt to bring about open discussion to help understand the nuances of this very complex issue and to hopefully highlight some more specifics and detailed data from our community in the comments and social media. We always believe in open discussion and think that international competitions like FIRST’s Global Challenge (and many others) may benefit from better understanding on how to manage potentially sensitive situations on the international stage. Situations that do have long-term implications for the future stability of our country and society. Education is a powerful force – perhaps the most powerful change-maker we have over the long-term – and one thing we do believe at ICS is that we must work hard to maximize its value for global good.

So what do you think? Should we close the doors to bringing international students to the US for these kinds of competitions? What if we know they’re going back to their home countries rather than staying and contributing to our economy? Or should we open the gates in an understanding that the benefits of sharing our culture and values will outweigh the potential detriments?

We’d love to hear your comments on both sides of the argument!

And don’t forget to signup for a free account with ICS to stay up on all the action with these and other interesting topics in academic competitions. We treat academics like the rest of the world treats sports and are working hard to bring more of these programs to the public sphere.