For students, the benefit of tinkering with tools and developing hands-on creative projects is that they get concrete lessons in what can otherwise feel like remote theoretical topics, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). While maker-based approaches are no longer new inside educational settings, an unexpected maker space is now being piloted at a children’s hospital, where patients can routinely experience long hospital stays, often in isolation.
“Many patients who have chronic illnesses are not allowed to leave their room, due to safety reasons and cross-contamination issues,” said Gokul Krishnan. “That’s why we bring the mobile maker space into the patient’s room.” He’s a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education who created the mobile maker space project to help patients learn STEM skills. He’s testing the project at Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.
The maker space is a rolling metal cart, filled with the equipment and materials needed for small-scale engineering projects. Cubbyholes full of wires and circuit boards are lined by lights that can cycle through the rainbow. A sleek 3-D printer is the heart of the cart, which is topped by a tablet computer on a swivel arm. The tablet is there for communicating with Krishnan and fellow patients.
Learning in the Hospital Room
Emily Neblett, 17, is one such patient who’s in and out of the hospital a lot. She has cystic fibrosis, which means that she has to come in every so often for what she calls her “two-week tuneup.” During that time, for medical reasons, she is pretty much isolated in her room.
“There’s not really much to see from around the hospital from the room,” said Emily. “It’s just sick kids and nurses and doctors. That’s really it.”
Walking around the hallways of the hospital confirms Emily’s take. It is quiet, save for the murmur of medical students making their rounds, the beep of machinery and the occasional sound of a cartoon leaking out from behind a door. Some of those doors have warning signs that say the room should not be entered without protective gear, to shield the patient inside from infection.
Emily first encountered an early version of the mobile maker space while visiting her cousin — who also has cystic fibrosis — in the hospital. That’s when she ran into Krishnan, who talked her into giving the cart a try.
“My little cousin and I started working on it together, and we made a design and everything.”
Creating Solutions to Real Problems
What sets the program that Krishnan has devised apart from an “arts and crafts” approach to hands-on learning is that he encourages the patients to identify real problems that they have in the hospital and come up with creative engineering solutions for them. For Emily, that need was a sense of control over her environment.
“I decided to make the doorbell just because my nurses would never knock. And it would drive me insane just having somebody walk in. So I put a sign on my door that said: Ring My Doorbell.”
That doorbell was a modest affair: a tissue-paper box outfitted with wires and switches. Simple as it was, though, it worked, and gave Emily something to be proud of — and something to focus on other than the two weeks that would otherwise crawl by.
The mobile maker space project started when Krishnan met Brandon Bradley in September 2013. Brandon was 17 at the time and in the hospital getting treatment for leukemia.
“The first project he gave me was a shoebox full of just random stuff,” Brandon said of Krishnan. “I think it was string, wire ... random stuff, and he told me to make something out of it. I wound up making the Nurse Night Light that would just light up the toilet and trash areas. So, if the nurses came in at night and opened up the door and flipped the lights on, it wouldn’t wake up the child that was asleep.”
Krishnan credits Brandon as a co-founder of the project, now named Project M@CH, which started a serious trial this winter at the Nashville hospital. One cart has become two, and pre-med students are being trained to expand the project further. Krishnan’s next step is to publish findings from his pilot program, in hopes that it will expand beyond the halls of the Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital.