February 5, 2015

Mobile ‘Makerspace’ provides patients tools to create, inspire

At first glance, the mobile Makerspace at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt looks like an ordinary computer cart with a printer and storage bins.

Daryann Pryor installs the doorbell she made for her room at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt using materials from the new mobile Makerspace learning cart. (photo by Joe Howell)

Daryann Pryor was too sick to get out of bed during a recent two-week hospital stay for her cystic fibrosis, a chronic lung and digestive disorder. Unenthusiastic about the usual board games or painting, the 16-year-old didn’t feel up to doing much.

And because patients with cystic fibrosis (CF) typically are isolated in their rooms — as they are at risk for infection from other children with CF or cross-contamination during a stay — roaming the hospital wasn’t an option.

But a seemingly simple cart changed her mood and set off a charged imagination of possibilities. Instead of resting in bed, she was up creating, imagining and inventing — first a nightlight and then a doorbell.

At first glance, the mobile Makerspace at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt looks like an ordinary computer cart with a printer and storage bins. Flick the switch, the cart illuminates in alternating colored lights — red, blue, green. The bin drawers are full of circuits, Play-doh, LED lights, wires, microcontrollers and more. One of the most exciting tools available is a 3-D printer, which can be used in the design process and to create objects and gadgets.

The mobile Makerspace learning cart is designed to engage patients and families, is full of components, tools and accessories and even features a 3-D printer. (photo by Joe Howell)

The cart is a learning space, designed to engage and excite patients and their families during an inpatient stay.

“We wanted to see how we could support 21st century skills while also supporting patient care,” said Gokul Krishnan, who is the founder of the mobile Makerspace at Children’s Hospital, also known as Project M@CH. “Makerspaces foster collaboration and creativity. This is designed by patients for patients.”

The mobile Makerspace is the first of its kind in a children’s hospital setting and is part of a pilot project, which includes two units. The carts’ roots hail from the maker movement, a community of do-it-yourselfers (DIYs) — from amateur students to the full-time inventors and computer enthusiasts — who create and innovate gadgets and technology using various physical and digital materials that include 3D printers, microcontrollers, circuits and more. Makerspaces are often found in libraries or schools.

The inspiration behind the mobile Makerspace stems from another Children’s Hospital patient, Brandon Bradley, a high school student diagnosed with leukemia. During a hospital stay, Bradley inquired about engineering activities he might do.

“I gave him a mystery box and it had different digital and physical materials in it. I told him to design anything he could imagine and think of with just what’s in the box — things like a microcontroller, eraser, string, plastic cup, LED lights,” said Krishnan, a Ph.D. student in Learning Sciences at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. “I said invent something with that.”

Overnight, Bradley built a nightlight for nurses who enter the room to give care. In the process, they turned on the bathroom light to see. Brandon designed a nightlight that would be bright enough so nurses could see without turning on the light at night.
Krishnan dubbed Brandon’s process “inventing through tinkering, or inventinkering.”

“Our goal is to explore new avenues in patient support by providing children at the hospital with creative outlets and learning opportunities,” Krishnan said.

Children’s Hospital has had a robust hospital school program for about 20 years, which includes tutoring and academic enrichment to help children maintain a sense of normalcy and support learning during their stay. It has one of two accredited hospital school programs in Tennessee.

The mobile makerspace enhances and complements an already great program, says Tina Woods, in-house hospital schoolteacher.

“The (mobile makerspace) really gives patients some control over what they want to learn and make in an environment where they have little control. They are engaged in meaningful learning activities without really knowing it. They are having fun while feeling relevant and connected to the world,” said Woods.

Krishnan and the hospital schoolteachers are working together to develop a mobile makerspace that both supports and complements the hospital school program.

Physicians and nurses welcome the cart as a learning opportunity and creative outlet for patients to express themselves. Some children have made mood necklaces that light up green for a “good day” and red for a “bad day.” Other patients use the 3-D printer to make bracelets for their nurses to say ‘thank you.’

For Daryann Pryor, the mobile Makerspace helped her get through a lengthy hospital stay to treat her cystic fibrosis. (photo by Joe Howell)

“Patients with cystic fibrosis typically remain in the hospital for 14 days at a time. Their activity in the hospital is mostly limited to the four walls of their hospital room due to infection control policies,” said Rebekah Flowers Brown, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Cystic Fibrosis Program.

“The Makerspace has been a wonderful addition to their hospital stay, allowing these children to think about and create amazing things while alleviating the boredom of their hospitalization. I have truly enjoyed watching their energy and excitement blossom while describing what they have accomplished with the Makerspace.”

As Daryann neared the end of her hospital stay, she was sad to leave because she had enjoyed the Makerspace so much. She recorded her inventions in a notebook with photos of her process, perhaps to inspire other patients.

“It really changed my day. I went from being in bed not feeling good to being up and putting pieces together and trying to make things. Ever since then, I have been feeling a lot better,” Daryann said.

“Being able to get up and have motivation to get up, it really helped me feel better. I think it’s a great experience. I had it for two weeks and I don’t want to get rid of it. It’s my little station, my ideas, my thoughts, my everything.”