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Prescription Robotics

Posted on Sep 05, 2019

Getting his son back to full health after a two-year battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia was a gift. Rob knew it was a gift that needed to be paid back.

And Rob is pretty good at giving back.

But with a full-time electrical engineering job and an already overloaded volunteering schedule mentoring and helping school kids learn programming for robots — which he has done pretty regularly for much of his 30-plus year career — Rob wasn’t sure how he was going to pull off one of his special robotics projects for the cancer patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

A few years went by, his own son aced his all-important, “five-years-cancer-free” physical, and Rob started contract work, giving him a more flexible schedule.

The kindness he and his family had received from virtually everyone they encountered after that horrible night — the one he calls the worst of his life, when he found out they were dealing with leukemia — had never left his mind. Helpful neighbors kept up their yard, school moms took over his volunteer duties, doctors and nurses helped to decipher and explain a frightening disease to a 10-year-old boy. It had been overwhelming and Rob’s gratitude, still fresh in his mind, needed to be passed along.

There are other children spending days, weeks, months in a hospital, missing school, missing friends, missing their own lives, he knew, and that’s exactly where he planned to step in.

Rob reached out to Janet Slee, a teacher he’d worked with on the Robotics team at Clearwater Fundamental. He was looking for some help from the students he had taken to competition with the robots that he’d taught them to make. The students heard about Rob volunteering at the hospital and they couldn’t wait to get involved.

“There is so much these kids learn from working with these robots,” Rob explains with excitement. “They learn problem solving. They build confidence. They learn programming. They learn design efficiency. They learn about working together on a team. This program is helping set them up to be doctors, engineers, attorneys. These are qualities they will carry with them through life. Plus, hey, it’s fun!”

The students got to work for Rob creating a few programs on computers to show the hospital patients what robots can do — say, turn somersaults, pick up an object and more. Attachments like arms, or shovels can be added to the robots to help accomplish what they are being programmed for. Then they helped build a course for the robots to move around on when the patients program their own. It sits on a table in the Family Resources Center where patients meet to learn robotics.

“Those students took it a step further,” Rob recalls. “They created a course that looked like a map of the hospital with an operating room, a lobby, a cafeteria and more. I was so impressed with what they came up with and I knew the patients would appreciate learning on a course that they could relate to. We create programs that move our “doctor” through the hallway and into the operating room by programming the robot and pushing her around the course. It’s great fun.”

Rob recently returned for his fifth monthly visit to Johns Hopkins All Children’s. He works with a controlled group so everyone has the proper time to learn, but the hope is to grow.

“Robotics is a wonderful program for our patients and families because it provides them with the opportunity to learn in an unconventional way,” adds Kendall Williams, school teacher in Patient Academic Services. “Many kids love hands-on learning experiences like robotics. They quickly become independent thinkers and learn how to problem-solve on their own or as a team. Most important, it creates a meaningful experience for our patients and their siblings. We are really enjoying partnering with Rob on this.”

Rob is noticing that the same patients keep returning, which tells him two things: One, he is reaching the desired audience of long-term patients (though robotics are open to anyone who wants to participate) and two, the kids are loving it enough to return again and again.

As they like to say in robotics, that’s a “successful completion of a mission.”

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