The students’ first attempt at nanorobotic vein harvesting and coronary artery bypass was not going well.
Despite the best efforts of Toby Mann, the “surgeon” at the controls, the Mitochondria Biotech team’s robot was having a terrible time picking up sections of veins to be attached to the walls of the heart.
Fortunately, the heart was made of scarlet-painted wood on a big gray rug unrolled over the center of the Aurora South Middle School gymnasium’s hardwood, and the vein sections were of flexible ductwork. The robot, which represented a nanobot swimming the human bloodstream before working its microsurgical magic, was 16 pounds of wood, wire, fasteners, tape, electric motors, an onboard computer, and a bulbous purple stuffed animal mascot. It flew a rainbow flag and was ballasted by 14 rolls of pennies.
Mitochondria Biotech was the brainchild of Toby and 22 teammates from Highlands Ranch STEM School’s high school BEST Robotics team. They had spent many hours over the past eight weeks preparing for a competition that was about much more than robots. Since its founding by two Texas Instruments engineers 31 years ago, the nonprofit BEST Robotics has emphasized not only STEM education among middle school and high school students but also teamwork, communication, creativity, community and fun. Some 3,500 volunteers around the country help make it happen.
Dakota Mann, 26, was one of those volunteers. He is a Lockheed Martin systems engineer now but was on the Highlands Ranch STEM School’s BEST Robotics team through middle and high school. He has continued as a mentor to his old high school team on which his younger brother Toby now competes.
“They’ll ask questions about how gear systems work or what’s the best way to give this pitch,” said Mann. “But everything is student-led.”
One of the pitches Mitochondria Biotech made was to UCHealth. Given that this year’s competition was called “Incision Decision,” with the competition involving a training platform modeled on minimally invasive surgery, it seemed like a good fit. And it was.
“We want to support the younger generation because they’re going to be the ones working at UCHealth in the future,” said Tomas Estrella, a UCHealth brand innovation strategist who was on hand for the Front Range BEST Robotics competition in Aurora on Saturday, Nov. 4.
Highlands Ranch STEM School puts on quite a display
The team recruited multiple sponsors and hosted fundraisers to cover spending of about $11,000. (BEST Robotics makes clear that teams need no money to participate, and the organization supplies both consumables and to-be-returned materials, the returnables including electric motors, the onboard computer, and such. What can be used is either provided or delineated with NASCAR-esque strictness.)
UCHealth’s contribution funded much of a display booth that would have been at home at a professional trade show. A computer numerical control-milled wooden sign mounted on high read, “Exhibit brought to you by UCHealth.” Highlands Ranch STEM School juniors Alexander “Sasha” Weiden and Raaga Devarasetti explained and demoed the various interactive displays. This was their fifth year doing BEST Robotics, and they were now leading teams: Sasha heading up outreach, Raaga in charge of “spirit.”
The exhibit – completed, like the robot itself, in a matter of weeks – included a life-size version of the old Operation game, substituting something the size of salad tongs for tweezers and custom 3D-printed widgets for plastic organs. It was no easier. The idea was to demonstrate the difficulty of surgeries without aid from the team’s imagined nanobot. A custom-coded and constructed video display controlled by red, green, white, and yellow buttons plus a joystick described the various functions of their robot during microsurgeries inside the human body.
Next to that lay a CPR dummy under a convincing-looking mockup of a surgical lamp. A big syringe next to the dummy showed how the nanobot would be injected into the bloodstream. Next came a tablet PC featuring a rotatable 3D model of their robot. Tapping certain spots yielded functional descriptions. Then an org chart and partially invented charts, here financials, there the effectiveness of the nanobot-driven surgery versus conventional methods for cardiac ablation, brain biopsy, vein harvesting, artificial heart valves, coronary bypass, and angioplasty. The team had not selected these categories randomly.
Front Range BEST Robotics competition: in the arena
Because over in the gym, Mitochondria Biotech’s penny-laden bot would be performing macroscopic facsimiles of those very procedures while competing against bots built by five other schools (Mountain Vista High School, D’Evelyn Junior-Senior High School, Bethlehem Middle School, and Academy ACL) as well as Highland Ranch STEM’s own middle school team.
They did so amid the drumbeats of nine inverted Lowe’s and Home Depot buckets from the Mitochondria Biotech team alone. Student Cerin Koenig wore a white robot costume evoking a more cylindrical Michelin Man. Blue and yellow face paint decorated cheeks; gold and blue streamers fluttered in hair. The vibe evoked more the fan section of a pro soccer game than an engineering-based endeavor, and it was good that way.
Referees wearing zebra shirts monitored multiple three-minute rounds of pseudosurgeries. Mitochondria Biotech, going for the coronary bypass’s big points, got a hard lesson in risk-reward when their bot’s design proved imperfectly matched to the task at hand. They ended up taking fourth – two spots behind Highlands Ranch STEM’s middle school team, which sported matching black shirts that read, “WE FAILED MED SCHOOL,” followed below by harder-to-read “But Became Engineers.” For the younger cohort, bragging rights were secured.
Yet, all was not lost for Mitochondria Biotech. To incorporate the various disciplines involved in a technology business and involve kids with diverse interests, BEST Robotics competitors are judged on more than just robotic performance. And so the team’s strong showings in the Best Exhibit, Marketing Presentation, and Spirit and Sportsmanship categories, among others, lifted them to second place overall – and with that, a trip to the regional finals at the Denver Coliseum on Dec. 16-17. May they have just as much fun there.