Makerspace at Tennessee children’s hospital lets kids build a better hospital room

A PhD student has created a makerspace at a children’s hospital in Tennessee to bring STEM education to sick kids and let them build a better hospital room.

Given the opportunity and the right tools to make a hospital stay less uncomfortable and unpleasant, young patients at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt in Tennessee came up with some interesting inventions.

One patient, fed up with being awoken every four hours, made a night light for nurses, so they could enter rooms without flicking on the overhead lights and jolting everyone awake.

Another patient, tired of constantly being asked how he was feeling and what his mood was, created a simple but effective mood necklace, with a red light to indicate a bad mood and a green light for a good one.

And another patient simply made a snake to scare nurses because, not surprisingly, children in children’s hospitals like to prank people, too.

Individually, these ideas may seem small. But taken together, these inventions represent the results of a project to improve the lives, mental health and education of children with chronic illnesses who spend much of their time in hospitals (scroll down to see pictures of these creations).

These practical creations came from a new “Makerspace” at the Tennessee children’s hospital, led by Gokul Krishnan, founder and leader of Project M@ch, which is using technology provided by littleBits Electronics.

The patient who made the light for nurses, Brandon, was a senior in high school and wanted to be an engineer, and his invention prompted Krishnan to wonder what might happen with other patients if they were given the proper tools and space.

“He saw a problem and came up with a solution using the materials he was given just like an engineer. That got me thinking, so I decided to work with other patients around the hospital,” Krishnan said.

Krishnan was already familiar with Make, the Bay Area media and publishing company behind the near ubiquitous Maker Faires and maker spaces around the country.

“Working with these kids for six months, they were coming up with these amazing inventions to improve the hospital, and these kids were learning empathy by working together. So I said ‘Why not design a maker space in the hospital that can support creativity and also help the patients?’” Krishnan said.

Based on what he, the staff, and several prominent backers saw in Tennessee, Krishnan said a unique learning environment like a maker space in a children’s hospital has the potential to vastly improve the education of children with chronic illnesses. In a hospital setting, he said, that often takes a back seat to other, likely more pressing matters of health. But, while health obviously takes precedence, what happens if and when a child gets out of the hospital?

“Every children’s hospital has a school-like program, but unfortunately it’s not a top priority,” Krishnan said. “A sick child is a medical phenomenon. Their health is the first priority, and the second is emotional and social development. How do you support learning for these kids? They suffer from lack of motivation, isolation. It’s important for these kids to learn 21st century skills like tech literacy,” he said.

Backed by Intel, Krishnan hopes to take the model to the hundreds of children’s hospitals around the country, perhaps even the globe, that treat millions of patients. He has also reached out to other prominent children’s hospitals, including UCSF Benioff in Oakland, Stanford’s Lucile Packard and a hospital in Finland.

Krishnan said one of the key challenges going forward is how to apply the maker space on a mass scale, particularly given that a good deal of the patients have conditions that keep them from being mobile. So in Tennessee, the maker space has been tailored to such needs.

“To make this sustainable, you have to really understand how this can actually work long-term,” Krishnan said. “Our vision is to design this in every children’s hospital.”

It’s not just about the technology, although that certainly factors in heavily, Krishnan said. The hospital will keep a close eye on what impact, if any, the learning experience has on patient care. It could be the case that a mentally stimulated, happier child patient can better cope with their chronic illness.

“It has the potential to change not only patient care, but also learning for these kids,” Krishnan said.

Mannas Magic Bell from Project M@CH on Vimeo.