Students from Resrach Laboratory High School test their skills at the peg transfer stations during UB’s annual Drone STEM competition May 4.

Research Laboratory High School students test their dexterity skills at the peg transfer stations during UB’s annual Drone STEM competition May 4.

Fun and Music in the Mix at UB Drone STEM Competition

By Dirk Hoffman

Published May 9, 2024

There was a palpable buzz of excitement in the air as Buffalo Public Schools students gathered May 4 for UB’s annual Drone STEM competition.

“I call it stealth learning because they learn without knowing they are learning because they are having fun. ”
James “Butch” Rosser, MD
Clinical professor of surgery

Music from Buffalo DJ Pros made sure the fifth floor of UB’s Clinical and Translational Research Center was bumping as the students competed at several stations that simulated laparoscopic surgical skills.

James “Butch” Rosser, MD, clinical professor of surgery in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and CEO of Stealth Learning Company, which helped develop the competition, served as master of ceremonies.

“I call it stealth learning because they learn without knowing they are learning because they are having fun,” he said.

Video Game, Drone Flying Simulate Surgical Skills

High school students from Health Sciences Charter School, Leonardo da Vinci High School and Research Laboratory High School, along with middle school students from PS37 Futures Academy, participated in the event.

They took turns competing at four different stations: Super Monkey Ball, Drone Simulation, Pea Drop and Peg Transfer.

“All of the activities have been clinically validated to help make better surgeons,” Rosser said. “All of them have been scientifically validated as being important for helping surgeons make fewer errors.”

Rosser says his research has shown that video games, drones and rap music can all help one achieve.

“In our hospital, we have a video game warmup suite because research has shown that Super Monkey Ball helps surgeons warm up and be more successful,” he added. “These things are fun, but they are real.”

The timed exercises all simulate surgical precision and emphasize precision instrument control and depth perception.

The origins of the Drone STEM program started in 1996 at the American College of Surgeons when Rosser was asked to develop a program for minority students.

In 2010, he worked with Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD, SUNY Distinguished Service Professor and chair of surgery, to introduce the program at SAGES (Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons) before bringing the program to the Jacobs School in 2019.

“It has a long heritage of impacting kids and getting them on the right path in STEM — science, technology, engineering, medicine and math,” Rosser said.

From left, James “Butch” Rosser, MD; Nargis Hossain, PhD, MBA; and Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD.

The main organizers of the event, from left, James “Butch” Rosser, MD; Nargis Hossain, PhD, MBA; and Steven D. Schwaitzberg, MD.

Asking Students to Believe in Themselves

During a pep talk leading up to the competition, Rosser told the students “this is not what you think it is; that it’s going to be a stuffy situation. This is a par-tay! The music, your music, is going to be the heartbeat of this whole thing. We gonna be bumping.”

Rosser also told the students, “now, you don’t know me, but I know you. I know you because I was you.”

He explained that he grew up in a small town in Mississippi in the segregated South, but never stopped believing he could make a difference in people’s lives.

“And I believe in you. We need you and we want you to dare to believe in yourself,” he told the students. “You do not have to change who you are to be in this arena.”

“I know I don’t look like a surgeon. I walked away from football. I was an offensive lineman for the University of Florida Gators, but I walked away because I wanted to be in this arena more than the NFL,” Rosser said.

“Everyone called me crazy when I said I was leaving, but as you can see, I did not turn out so bad,” he added. “And I did not have to change who I was.”

In her opening remarks, Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School, said the Jacobs School “wants to get more students interested in STEM.”

“We want to make sure that is an inclusive group,” she said. “We are committed to diversifying the face of medicine. We see you as the future of medicine.”

Like Many Things, Surgery is a Team Effort

Schwaitzberg, who has known Rosser for 30 years, told the students surgery is a team sport and “just like in the operating room, each of you are an incredibly important member of your team.”

“So even if you think you are not having your best day, you must push on because every score counts. And last year, the team that actually had no individual winners won the whole competition because they were the best team.”

“You may think you are high school and middle school students, but today you are surgeons in training and your skills will be tested,” he said.

“Some of the skills we are going to put you through are the real skills that all board-certified surgeons actually have to do to in order to get there. These are the real deal.”

“We want you to believe that every single person in this room could, if they chose, could go become somebody’s physician, or somebody’s nurse, or somebody’s social worker,” Schwaitzberg said. “Every single person in the room has that capacity to do that. And for our little part, we’re here to help you get on your way.”

Students from the winning Health Sciences team have steely concentration as they fly drones in the simulator.

Students from the winning Health Sciences Charter team exhibit steely-eyed concentration as they fly drones in the simulator.

Medical Students, Surgery Staff Help Coach

Lynn Larkin is a guidance counselor at PS37 Futures Academy, which is located on Carleton Street.

“We are so close. We have been wanting to participate. Our school is only two blocks away, so we walked over this morning,” she said. “I love it, I think it is a beautiful program, especially for middle schoolers. I think they should think about also offering it to younger students as well.”

Two dozen volunteers, made up of Department of Surgery staff and medical students, worked to mentor and coach the students at each of the stations.

Nargis Hossain, PhD, MBA, academic programs officer in the Department of Surgery, was one of the main organizers of the event.

She noted that each team had five practice sessions in the UB RISE lab at the Jacobs School during school days before the actual competition.

“The principals and teacher champions worked together to make sure the kids could get here during typical school hours,” she said. “The middle schoolers actually had some of the best scores during the practice sessions.”

This year’s competition winners were:


  • 1st Place: Health Sciences Charter
  • 2nd Place: Leonardo da Vinci High School
  • 3rd Place: Futures Academy
  • 4th Place: Research Laboratory


  • 1st Place: Ayub Osman: Health Sciences Charter
  • 2nd Place: Clarence Barber: Health Sciences Charter
  • 3rd Place: Abdul Malik: Leonardo da Vinci High School
  • 4th Place: Ocean Brooks: Health Sciences Charter