A symbol of healing and help, or of burden and sorrow, a hospital bed can arouse a spectrum of emotions, including being seen as a barrier to socialization and proper education for children with chronic illnesses. A NASA-funded pilot program in Orlando helps children who must endure long-term hospitalization continue learning and socializing by bringing interactive aerospace activities straight to their hospital beds.
The program focuses on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, and is the result of a partnership between the Orlando Science Center and a team at the University of Central Florida (UCF). Together these organizations developed this outreach based on the work of Megan Nickels, professor of STEM education at UCF, who took STEM lessons to hospital-bound children.
Heather Norton, vice president of education at the Orlando Science Center, chuckled as she recited the program’s full title. “It’s got a very fancy grant name, like most do. The official title is ‘STEM Satellite: A Mobile Mathematics and Science Initiative for Orlando Metropolitan Area Children’s Hospitals’; although, we refer to it adoringly as just ‘STEM Satellite’ when we talk about it.”
NASA has donated $1.2 million to the science center to make the idea a reality.
The first phase of the program will be implemented at Nemour’s Children’s Hospital this fall. It will later be launched at Florida Hospital for Children and at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children.
“Partnering with the three children’s hospitals was critical to this work because we needed their expertise and their experience with how to have something like this live in their environment,” Norton said. The partners believe building a conceptual understanding of science through the use of real-world applications and innovative research interventions will keep children’s interest in STEM alive.
“By being able to create these experiences that really have a great story and a very real-world application, it makes the mathematical learning so much more relevant,” Norton said. “When you have a reason to learn that formula, or to understand how and why to think in a certain way, it makes the learning more valuable and more memorable.”
The Junior Astronauts
The program is designed to break down advanced concepts from actual NASA missions into digestible bites for kids who are 10 to 18 years old. “In those middle- to-high-school years, if you are missing a significant amount of schooling, that’s where you really start to see a disparity with learning,” Norton said.
Many of these children experience extended hospitalization when they’re going through treatments. To keep their curiosities in STEM alive, Norton understands the children need to remain actively engaged in their education. “These children often spend large quantities of hours being very bored. They often don’t have access to high-quality enrichment, so we feel this program can also give them something valuable and meaningful they can engage in during their free time.”
The planetary scientists at UCF are key in building a rich, yet relatable curriculum. They take information from actual NASA missions to build content-rich modules, or missions, for the kids.
“We have three different missions that have activities in STEM and robotics,” Norton said. “Our first mission being rolled out is called Mission to Mars. The various activities use LEGO robotics and different tools and equipment to help them move through these tasks that are tied to specific NASA content and actual NASA missions.”
Mission to Mars covers how they might launch a rocket to get to Mars, along with how they should collect information from planets by programming actual robots and rovers. “So, they’re each going to be building robotic rovers and launching rockets. It’s very hands-on,” Norton said. “These activities are designed to reinforce math concepts while they’re engaged in these highly interactive missions that are tied to NASA content and data sets.”
Stars and Beyond, the program’s next component, will be based on several missions, including OSIRIS-REx, which is a NASA asteroid study and sample-return mission. Children will be tasked with analyzing and mapping samples of the surfaces of various asteroids, documenting sample sizes, measuring their orbit deviation caused by non-gravitational forces and comparing each other’s observations.
The third mission will be based around the James Webb Space Telescope, which focuses on the stars and the creation of the universe. The telescope currently serves in observing every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our Solar System.
Finding the Space to Explore
One of the most significant learning aspects for the developers was the partnership with the hospitals, as they learned that desk space within a child’s hospital room is a commodity.
“We had to be very thoughtful and practical about how to create these experiences so a child can complete the mission bedside,” Norton said. “Sometimes the only surface a child has is a small hospital tray. We really had to be mindful and think about how to create these experiences so children could do them no matter what the space in their room, or their situation, allows.”
The Final Frontier
By weaving together so many experts and institutions who are interested in STEM, the developers have been able to build a comprehensive educational experience for children, Norton said.
“This is truly a collaborative initiative that could not be done without the expertise of all of the parties involved,” she said. “It takes UCF, Dr. Nickels and her team, and the planetary scientists at UCF to provide the content we need. The planetary scientists were able to tie in not only the NASA missions, which were so important, but they also connected it to the research being done at UCF.”
Orlando Science Center’s goal is to be able to establish this program in hospitals all over the country. “Eventually, we will be training a child life team at various hospitals, so they feel equipped to maintain these kids, and the program will be self-sufficient — so this could live on without us.”