Robotics team learns how to use surgical robot at Forbes

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

It's not every day that someone is offered the chance to test drive a NASA-designed robot that is used for surgical procedures, but that's just the opportunity members of the Franklin Regional High School Robotics Team were given on Friday at Forbes Regional Hospital in Monroeville.

Under the watchful eyes of the doctors who use the Da Vinci surgical robot as well as representatives of Intuitive Surgical, designers of the robot, students went through the same learning process surgeons use when they are first trained on the robot.

Sophomore Conlon Novak was the first to have his hands transformed into a surgical robot.

He was eager to test the robot and picked up tiny rubber bands with the robot's arms.

“The depth perception is very nice,” Novak said. “It feels very intuitive.”

Each student had opportunity to manipulate rubber bands and move pods of differing heights and colors using the arms and fingers of Da Vinci. They also were given an explanation of traditional laparoscopic surgery to illustrate just how far technology has advanced surgical possibilities.

Senior Steve Roote says the Da Vinci robot is “a lot more complex than anything the club has.”

Carolyn Stewart, computer science teacher and sponsor of the robotics club, said she remembers when the school only had available Apple 2s for the students to learn simple computer science procedures. The program has come a long way, placing second in the Greater Pittsburgh FIRST High School Robotics Competition at California University earlier this year.

“We're so blessed that we have these resources” close by, said Stewart, who is set to retire after 34 years with the district. “They're going to be our technology people of the future ... keeping our country rolling.”

The opportunity was organized by hospital President Reese Jackson, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Mark Rubino — who is a Murrysville resident — and Franklin Regional officials.

Rubino said it's important for IT, computer science and engineering students to gain exposure to this type of technology.

“Technology that allowed us to advance the delivery of healthcare didn't come from physicians; it came from students that became engineers that used IT to get the technology to the point where it could be adapted to medicine,” he said. “What's great from an academic standpoint is their interest in this kind of technology ultimately will lead to new procedures that will really benefit society.”

Sophomore AJ Buchin might have best summed up the club's feelings about the experience: “Awesome!”

Dave Rullo is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media. Staff writer Renatta Signorini contributed to this report.

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