LAKELAND - They stare at their own hands and study how the knuckles bend and tendons stretch. They sketch out models and pick each other's brains.
In a downtown Lakeland classroom, a dozen students have been charged with building a working human-like hand - just the thumb and index finger to start - from Lego pieces and pins, rubber bands and string.
"I have the parts of the finger. I just have to figure out how to get the rubber bands all working together," said Ashtan Madsen, a senior at All Saints Academy.
"There's no right or wrong here," said instructor Roderic Brame. "Innovation doesn't have right or wrong."
The first students at Florida Polytechnic University are in a summer program called MERIT, or Medical Engineering and Robotics Innovation for Tomorrow. They're not college kids, though. They're high-performing high school students and recent graduates who have been invited to the program to study with medical and academic experts and get some hands-on experience using surgical robots and technology.
The dozen invitees were from All Saints, Bartow High, and Lake Wales High.
It's the first outreach program for the new Florida Poly, which will open in the fall of 2014 as the state's 12th public university. Partners with the university are Winter Haven Hospital and All Saints Academy.
"Our job is to provide students avenues to go into high-tech, specialized engineering and innovative technology programs," said Ghazi Darkazalli, Poly's vice president of academic affairs. "With this, we are opening that horizon."
Florida Polytechnic was split from the University of South Florida under acrimonious circumstances in the 2012 legislative session. With no track record, and intense competition to recruit young tech whizzes, the summer session is one way for Poly to make itself known.
Jamin Brahmbhatt, a urologist at Winter Haven Hospital, said it's a good way for the institutions involved to give back to the community. "We're hoping that some of these kids will be inspired," he said.
There was plenty of inspiration at a recent MERIT session when an Aeromed EC135 critical care transport helicopter landed in the parking lot of Poly's temporary headquarters.
"That was really cool to see," said Sarah Bailey, a senior at All Saints. The students chatted with the pilot and medical technicians who work on the helicopter and examined its interior.
"It's incredible how much they can fit in such a small space, and how many procedures they can do with such a limited amount of space," said Haley Oberhofer, who is heading to the University of Florida this fall.
The gee-whiz factor has been part of the program since it began the first week of June. Students have operated ultrasound, CT and MRI equipment at Winter Haven Hospital, studied the medical field's use of toxic gases, learned the basics of radiation oncology and will observe robotic microsurgery as the program winds down next week.
They each were given a Romo mini-robot, which is operated via a smart phone; the students will have to come up with a practical use for the technology by the end of the program.
And they struggled with plastic bones and rubber-band tendons of their robotic hands.
Partners Devin Patel and Simon Daferede, both of All Saints, squinted and pursed their lips as they labored over their creation, with Patel's stream-of-consciousness accompanying the process. "We need ..." He paused. "Simon, what if we had something that we can hook these rubber bands to here, and we made it so this would collapse with it ..."
It was music to instructor Brame's ears.
"It takes a while," said Brame, director of science, technology, engineering and math education at Florida Southern College. "What'll happen is, they do this, they'll be thinking about it, they'll go to lunch, and when they come back from lunch, you'll see marked improvement. If we came back another day, it would be way up there."
His instruction is based on a process he calls problem-based learning.
"They don't get that kind of learning," Brame said. "They need it."