The Ottumwa Courier

October 23, 2013

Robot catches kids' interest

Courier staff writer

---- — OTTUMWA — This robot was different than the ones these students were used to.

"That was [one] reason for taking the students [to visit Ottumwa Regional Health Center]; this isn't a robot entertaining people by going across a stage, this is a robot performing life-saving procedures," said Sharon Padget, an Ottumwa High School teacher.

The youngsters received an invitation from Dr. Jeff Bittner, who performs surgery at the hospital using, when the circumstances are right, the da Vinci surgical robot.

"Back in August, Dr. Jeff Bittner contacted our principal, Mark Hanson, about becoming a mentor," said Padget.

He was specifically interested in clubs that encourage student enthusiasm toward the sciences. That seemed like a good match for HyperStream members, who study technology careers in person, and the First Tech Challenge Robotics Club, where members build, program and operate robots competitively. Padget said these are hands-on kids, each with their own gift.

She and fellow staff members Beth Neese and Steve Zimmerman went with the students to Ottumwa Regional Health Center. Bittner and a da Vinci service representative assigned to Ottumwa's robot explained how the robot worked, and why it was better than some other types of surgery. Then, after some training, they let the kids use the surgical tool.

So were the students nervous?

"No, they were fearless," Padget said. "Dr. Bittner actually sat the kids down in the chair and showed them how to manipulate the robot. They talked of nothing else on the way back to school. Of being able to move things with just their hands and feet on this $1.5 million dollar robot. How it felt to move the robot, the challenges Dr. Bittner gave them ..."

Of course, these young science and technology buffs are more used to robots, programming and remote control units than some members of their parents' generation.

"They caught on more quickly because of being video game players; they didn't have much trouble getting comfortable. Of course, one student said he could now tell Mom that there's a good reason to play video games," Padget said.

Teachers at the high school say it's become more common to bring in mentors from the community to help students learn; the tech-oriented kids met Bittner, as well as an engineer and a man who does high-altitude balloon experiments. People like that, Padget said, can help OHS students see what's out there in the "real world." For example, she said, students might decide they want to become a doctor, but they can also see that if they are interested in both health care and programming, they can program medical equipment, or they can design or repair advanced technology used in hospitals.

Iowa is even spending money to get students to see some of the jobs they can get after high school if they buckle down and focus on the tough classes. Gov. Terry Branstad has made funding available to encourage STEM: science, technology, engineering, math. In fact, that initiative provides some funding for one of the technology clubs at OHS.

"We have so many job openings in those areas, and not enough workers to fill them," Padget said. "Great-paying jobs, but no one is qualified to do them. A student who has a two-year programming degree [at Indian Hills] started out at $60,000."

As for the robot, she'd like to see the company that makes it "toss one in the back of a semi" and, in between visiting interested hospitals, stop at schools. She's already made the suggestion to a sales rep from the company.

"It's one of those things, you wish every student would have a chance to do this," she said. "The clubs now plan to do this as a yearly thing."

— To see reporter Mark Newman's Twitter feed, go to @couriermark