Eye on Education

Beyer High team gets to see cutting-edge robotics

Modesto Robotics Students Visit High Tech Surgical Unit

Beyer High robotics team members got to speak with a surgeon who uses robotic technology at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. (Nan Austin/naustin@modbee.com)
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Beyer High robotics team members got to speak with a surgeon who uses robotic technology at Doctors Medical Center in Modesto. (Nan Austin/naustin@modbee.com)

Beyer High School robotics team members compete at the national and world level, their winning robots acing the game. But a trip to Doctors Medical Center brought into focus a more serious side of the technology: What robotic dexterity and precision can achieve in medicine.

The Iron Patriots Beyer Robotics team visited the Modesto hospital in October to accept a contribution toward entry fees and competition costs. But along with posing for pictures with a giant cardboard check, the students got to don surgical coveralls and see the hospital’s Da Vinci Robot Assisted Surgical System.

Aspiring pediatrician Brianna Wright, a senior, took the top score for first tries at the Da Vinci training simulation, moving objects with a virtual pincer. Teens watched a video of surgery while waiting turns on the simulator.

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“Looking at people’s guts makes me nauseous. But with a robot, it was OK,” said junior Tabitha Bandy, who hopes to go into biomedical engineering. Bandy said she liked the idea of a robotic assist for surgeons. “In an emergency, it’s more efficient,” she said.

Efficiency is only part of what they bring to the operating table, where a human brain can make masterful use of robotic parts designed for travel within the human body.

First, robotic eyes do not stand 2-plus feet above the table, requiring a wide-open cavity to see where to direct the scalpel. They slip inside, transmitting a close-up view to the surgeon without need for major incisions that increase post-surgery pain and extend recovery times.

“We can see better; it’s a 3-D camera,” surgeon Kathleen Eve told the students. Eve uses the Da Vinci Robot Assisted Surgical System primarily for gynecological and urological procedures.

“There’s a lot less blood loss,” said Carin Sarkis, who works in the business side of the hospital. There’s less pain, a smaller scar and fewer complications. A traditional hysterectomy requires six to eight weeks of recovery time, but with the robotic-assisted procedure, a patient can resume her normal routine in one or two weeks, she explained.

It’s people like you that led to what we’re doing in medical technology today.

Carin Sarkis, Doctors Medical Center, speaking to Beyer High robotics students

Besides needing smaller entry points, robotic extensions can twist 360 degrees and travel narrower pathways than human fingers, grasping and moving tiny veins without having to bring in a thumb. And those extensions are rock steady.

“There is not one person who has no tremors. A lot of times, you can’t see it, but it’s there,” Eve said. “(Robotics bring) a different level of surgical precision,” she said.

For colon surgeries, cutting out damaged bowels requires tracing back to tissue on both sides strong enough to splice together. Sensors can pinpoint that spot more accurately than gloved fingers, she said.

At Doctors Medical Center, surgeons control every move of the robotic arms from a control station a few feet away. But the technology holds hope for patients far away from top-notch specialists, allowing remotely guided operations in Third World countries or snowed-in mountain retreats. The Army is developing a robot-equipped battlefield vehicle allowing doctors to staunch heavy bleeding and improve the odds of injured soldiers surviving to reach a mobile army surgical hospital unit.

All of these areas and more will need robotics-savvy researchers and practitioners, Doctors’ spokespeople stressed to the team.

“We support your efforts. It’s your brainpower, and it’s people like you today who make it possible for us to do this,” Sarkis said.

(Teens learn) how to compromise on a design and not end up with an eight-legged dog with one ear.

Heidi Pagani, Beyer High math and robotics teacher

About 150 Beyer students are in the robotics pathway, said teacher Heidi Pagani.

Teens take pre-engineering programming and three robotics courses: one building basic systems, another studying metal fabrication and pressurized air propulsion, and a third teaching programming languages. Two of the four courses have been approved as college prep courses fulfilling University of California requirements.

The robotics team includes about 20 of those students and their parents, taking what they have learned in robotics classes to the next level.

“Our teams are competitive, and we are learning a lot,” Pagani said. Besides building a better robot, the teens learn workplace basics that will serve them in any job, she added.

“Students learn the soft skills needed for employment,” Pagani said, ticking off “communication; perseverance; teamwork; how to compromise on a design and not end up with an eight-legged dog with one ear; team loyalty; and how to present and talk to adults.”

The Beyer High Iron Patriots robotics team is raising money through an online GoFundMe campaign that as of the end of November was halfway to its goal of $20,000. Unlike sports teams, robotics does not receive school support for its competitions. For more information or to donate, contact teacher Heidi Pagani at pagani.h@monet.k12.ca.us or Principal Dan Park at park.da@monet.k12.ca.us.