Robotics Teams Respond to COVID-19 Call

April 28, 2020 |


Audio Story: Students in Abilene ISD and Wylie ISD build robots for a local hospital

Kole Trumble, left, a junior at Wylie High School in Wylie ISD, works on a robotics table for local hospitals.

As communities across the globe are seeking solutions to the effects of the coronavirus, a hospital in Abilene found the help they needed to save on personal protective equipment by looking to their local public school teachers and students. 

At the Hendrick Health System, hospital officials wondered if it was possible to build a robot that could drive into patient rooms so that tasks such as delivering medications could happen remotely and hospital staff would not have to repetitively use personal protective equipment.

Engineering and robotics teachers at Abilene ISD and Wylie ISD found themselves at the center of trying to find an innovative solution to the hospital’s challenges. 

What would transpire following Hendrick’s initial request to the districts was a long weekend of building, coding, and programming that resulted in operable prototypes delivered to the hospital the following Wednesday morning. 

Larry Haney and Tracy Long, both teachers at the Academy of Technology, Engineering, Math, and Science (ATEMS) in Abilene High School connected virtually with their students to collaborate on completing the robot. The robotics team from Wylie High School was led by junior Kole Trumble under the guidance of teacher Andy Hope.

This audio story features the voices of the teachers and students who built the robot and then embarked on a new community project for another local hospital, as well as Texas State Representative Stan Lambert, who talks about how in rural Texas, public schools are often the center of finding community solutions.

“I think it underscores the tremendous amount of talent, creativity, and innovation that are available in our public school system,” says Lambert. 

This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity. Listen to the full audio story above.

Kole: So I got an email Saturday morning. I think it was like 9 or 10 o’clock or something. From Mr. Hope. It was a notification that said, “Hey, are y’all interested in helping Hendrick with this robotic table?”

Tessa: That’s Kole Trumble – a junior at Wylie High School in Abilene, Texas. He is part of a COVID-19 story that you probably haven’t heard in which a rural Texas hospital turned to two local school districts for help. 

Could teachers and students in the local schools help build a robot that could take a hospital tray into patients’ rooms and in return reduce the amount of personal protective equipment utilized by hospital staff?

Lambert: This is something that we see really happening here in rural Texas quite often. We’ve got small school districts that are having to think outside the box. 

Tessa: I’m Tessa Benavides with Raise Your Hand Texas and in this story about Texas educators rising to the challenge, we are heading to Texas’ Big Country where, as Texas State Representative Stan Lambert just described, Texas school leaders have always been at the center of finding creative solutions for their communities.

Tracy: Think about it, small towns, they don’t have engineering firms. 

Tessa: That’s Tracy Long. He teaches aerospace engineering at the Academy of Technology Math and Science in Abilene ISD.

Tracy: They don’t have architecture firms. They don’t have the resources that large towns do. So for a lot of these small towns the teachers are the resources and the smaller the town is, the more that becomes the case. The more you get called on to solve problems. The more you get called on to do things for the community.

Tessa: To help tell this story about innovative solutions provided by public schools, I am joined by my colleague Amy Dodson who is our regional advocacy director for West Texas. How did you hear about this story?

Amy: State Representative Stan Lambert — his office called me, very excited. They had just heard about this project, about robots being built from our schools responding to a need that hospitals had.  

Lambert: It’s about thinking about the resources, the people, the collaboration, and the partnering that can come together. You know when your back’s against the wall like we’re in right now, the situation we’re in, that’s really how we should respond. We should be looking at what we already have – what are the resources on the ground that we can go and put the people together — like Hendrick did with contacting AISD and Wylie ISD; getting those faculty members, getting those students involved, bringing in one of our local manufacturers to work on this project, as well. And doing it over a weekend! I mean that is just a tremendous example of how we try to solve problems in rural Texas. 

Tessa: So what was the problem these teachers and students helped solve?

Amy: Well, Representative Lambert mentioned Hendrick which is one of the main hospital systems in Abilene and across the Big Country and they were having a concern over an acronym we have all learned far too well over the last month or so: PPE, the personal protective equipment that’s used in the hospitals.

Larry: Just FYI before you finish that – back at that time we had zero covid-19 cases in Abilene. We’ve now got what 9, 11?

Amy: That voice you just heard belonged to Larry Haney. He’s a math and engineering teacher at the Academy of Technology Math and Science High School in Abilene.

Larry: The way that it came down to me was initially that I received an email Saturday morning from Dr. Young, our superintendent, and it just had a little blurb on it about what this was about and what was going on and do you think you could do anything with it? I went well maybe? 

I contacted both our, I’m gonna call him our main programmer. He’s a senior in our robotics program. He can program anything and if he can’t, he’ll figure it out. 

Tessa: For these teachers, not having their students be able to physically be a part of constructing the robot was their biggest challenge – both emotionally as well as practically.

Tracy: To be fair I was talking to Larry about this when we were putting together the last robots that if we could’ve involved our students odds are the design and development of it would have been a lot faster. Because, Larry will be the first to tell you this, too – they know a more about it than we do.    

Larry: They think outside the box.

Amy: So, amazingly, over a span of really almost less than four days they did multiple iterations – Tracy, Larry, and the couple of students they called to program and make the robot operable – they had a version on its way to Hendrick. 

A really cool part of this story, Tessa, is that later in the week Tracy got a text message from someone he knew whose aunt was actually one of our first cases of COVID-19 in Abilene at Hendrick and she had posted on her Facebook that a robot had delivered her blanket! It turned out to be one of the robots they had made! So it was amazing that in such a short period of time they had gave something to Hendrick that became practical, and practical with an immediate impact. 

Larry: Solutions are being found to problems all the time by our students and by faculty and by people associated with the school district. It’s not a surprise to us.

Tessa: So while all this work is happening with Larry, Tracy, and their students, a group at Wylie ISD is also working some robotics magic.  As Andy Hope, their engineering and robotics teacher will tell you – their story also starts bright and early on a Saturday morning!

Andy: It started on a Saturday morning it was, I think it was 8:40 in the morning and I got an email from my superintendent, Mr. Joey Light and it’s asking to put me in contact with somebody from Hendrick. So I start emailing with them back and forth and then all the sudden my phone starts just going crazy! They start calling me and then I see that my superintendent is calling me, so I’m like okay well this is getting pretty serious.

We figured out that yes we could probably solve the problem. We could do it and my first thought was after that was hey I’ve got to get the kids involved one way or the other.

The completed robotics table made by the team.

Kole: So we used VEX Robotics parts. They are a company that makes educational robotics kits and what not. We used them because the parts are made of metal instead of plastic or legos or something.

Tessa: That’s Kole Trumble, again. He’s the expert on how the robot came together.

Kole: We had two wheels at the front which helped steer and then we had two wheels in the middle which did forward and backwards movement. The controller that Vex makes has a wireless antenna you can put on it that will connect to a wireless remote that you program to run the motor different ways. We did a quick program and sent that to the brain and then we were able to control the robot from the remote.  

I think it was really cool that we were able to help out. We used tools that were available to us at the time and we worked with what we had. I just think it was a lot of fun to be able to make this and help the hospitals and nurses and what not.

Amy: For Andy, watching his students at work, solving real-life challenges – that’s the heart of what an educator is about.

Andy: Seeing kids with their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as an engineering teacher that’s just I mean that’s how I’m livin the dream right now, from an educator standpoint. Because I’m seeing them take stuff we learned in the classroom and translate it to real world application.

Amy: You know Tracy at Abilene ISD, when I visited with him, pointed out another really important piece of this: how he and all of his fellow teachers, they’re trying to teach so much more than just the curriculum. He really saw this as a real concrete lesson about the importance of servant leadership and just stepping up when you’re asked to be in service of other people.

Tracy: When we teach our kids in our engineering program not only do we have to teach them the practicalities of engineering but a lot of what we have to teach as well is engineering ethics. One of the things ethically speaking for engineers is not just about making money but about making a difference in your community. 

If we would have gotten this offer to do something and we would have said no because we didn’t have time or we needed to make money or we needed to do something. If we would have had a chance to actually help the community and we had refused to help the community, how could we look them in the eye and actually talk to them about ethics.

Tessa: That sense of community has continued beyond the robot project. The other major hospital in Abilene also reached out to Wylie ISD with another problem needing an innovative solution. Kim Cheek with the district said that story has a familiar beginning.

Kim: Well once again it started out with a text and followed up with a phone call.

Tessa: This time the need was for the headgear needed for plastic face shields – a hospitalist at Abilene Regional Medical wanted to know if the engineering department could design and print 3D plastic face masks. And so Andy Hope and Kole Trumble started a new drawing board.

Kim: We started with the prototype and turned those in and the hospitalist approved it. So they’re working really hard in the past 24 hours to produce enough for every crash cart at Abilene Regional to have these face shields.

Andy:  And now, we’re just in full on mask production. I’ve got two of the printers from school. I brought them home and Kole’s got the other one from school and we’re running them all day trying to get these shields out to the community.

Kim: That’s really cool that it is a collaborative project while we’re social distancing. 

Andy: Yeah!

Kim: It’s an individual, collaborative project that’s community based.

Tessa: People couldn’t be prouder of how the public schools have responded to a community need. Here’s Representative Lambert.

Lambert: I think it underscores the tremendous amount of talent and creativity and innovation that is available in our public school system. 

I think if we would maybe talk to our students on a little bit more regular basis about what are you seeing happening in your world, in your life.  This was an opportunity to bridge that gap and really put students in a position to say, “you know what? What I’ve learned in robotics and what I’ve learned in my background and in my experience and education, can help maybe contribute to this overall equation of how we’re going to build a robot that can go into hospital rooms and help our nurses stay safe.”

Tessa: As we are all being cautioned to be physically distant from one another, our public schools are still a place where communities come together  – even in the midst of a global pandemic. Despite all this change, there is one constant: the resiliency of Texas health care workers, educators and their students.

I’m Tessa Benavides with Raise Your Hand Texas. Thanks for listening.

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