PedsAcademy at Nemours Children’s Hospital
by Diane Mayse
Located in Lake Nona, Florida, PedsAcademy is the first pediatric school program designed to provide research-backed learning opportunities tailored to each student-patient’s specific disease or treatment conditions to help mitigate the learning challenges faced while students are in the hospital for treatment or post-operative recovery. The program just completed its first year of implementation and was inspired by an experience that Dr. Megan Nickels, Founder and Faculty Director, had early in her graduate studies in 2012. She had been an elementary teacher for several years when she began her Ph.D. program in Mathematics at Illinois State University. Living in a more rural area while attending classes, she missed interacting with children and signed up to volunteer at the local hospital to support the pediatrics education program. At the time, the hospital had one certified teacher for the learning needs of over 200 K-12 children. Megan’s volunteer role was to teach children across many grade levels and subject areas.
On Megan’s first day, she was handed a packet of worksheets and assigned a little girl who had just had surgery to remove a brain tumor. Megan walked into the patient’s room, looked at the little girl who was a little groggy from recovery and had an incision site that was raw from surgery, looked down at the packet of worksheets, and decided she needed to do something different.
Megan completed her Ph.D. program in Mathematics with a focus on STEM learning, and her dissertation research was the foundation for building a hospital-based education program that is sensitive to the needs of students whose cognitive and physical learning skills can be challenged by their medical treatments and diseases. Six years after her first day as an educational volunteer at a children’s hospital, the PedsAcademy program came to life at Nemours Children’s Hospital.
PedsAcademy created their own online curriculum for teachers to use to pre-assess knowledge and skills when students are admitted into the hospital and to guide teaching and learning goal attainment throughout the student’s hospital stay. Students interact directly with the curriculum for certain lessons using a personalized learning path built by their teacher, and Avatars and Pedagogical Agents can be embedded in the curriculum to study cognitive, metacognitive, and motivational processes and address each combined child’s educational and health needs as they continue to learn throughout their medical treatment and intervention stay at the hospital. In April, students held the first PedsAcademy Science Fair, opening up the first floor of the hospital to display their projects and project boards, giving them the opportunity to share their work and learning with the public. (See more at PedsAcademy Learning in Action.)
At PedsAcademy, students use virtual reality (VR) to immerse themselves in environments to engage with their learning activities. For instance, younger children might enter a scene using their iPads and Merge cubes in order to manipulate objects and learn about math and science, virtually practicing the skills of accurate measurement in a science lab. Older children might enter a scene designed to match a story they are reading as they meet for “Book Club,” or the scene might be set in a café where students can come together virtually to discuss the book and share their thoughts and ideas. Using VR tools, students can also tour museums, such as the Louvre in Paris, or explore the conditions on Mars, allowing student-patients to virtually leave the hospital for authentic learning activities. VR is also being used to assist students with conditions such as cerebral palsy, who often have restricted muscle control and gripping skills. The students can virtually manipulate tools such as rulers and other measuring devices in order to build authentic learning experiences with measurement and data collection as part of their math and science content coursework. Using engineering kits, students create their own objects to build, empowering students in design-thinking, critical reasoning, and problem-solving skills.
Faculty are on site at Nemours Monday through Friday from 8-5pm, bringing expertise in math, science, reading, engineering, music, humanities, and special education learning needs. They partner with students, their families, and the medical care team to determine how to best support student learning given each child’s unique needs, creating unique learning-treatment plans that engage students in hands-on learning and self-discovery. They are actively researching mathematics and literacy learning growth and STEM engagement and motivation for inpatient children. The PedsAcademy team is currently in talks with several children’s hospitals to bring PedsAcademy onsite for them, and they would be delighted to mentor others who are interested in their work.
Dr. Nickels, PedsAcademy Founder and Faculty Director and Assistant Professor of STEM Education at UCF, shares “Our aim is to go far beyond the minimum, to provide an extraordinary education experience at PedsAcademy beginning on Day 1, so that children re-enter their school with a leg up as critical problem solvers, flexible thinkers, and irrepressible learners.”
Norman Jeune, Co-Founder and Administrative Director of PedsAcademy at Nemours shares that he was drawn to the program because of its tailor-made solution for learning for children who have been traditionally underserved in the hospital environment. As someone new to the front lines of education, his biggest learning experience this year has come from the success they have had in targeting learning solutions using their innovative programs, and he has seen first-hand just how critical the need is for the PedsAcademy program. He shared “I see this program setting the groundwork that will become a schematic for changing education for children facing illness.” It is his hope that the work that the PedsAcademy is doing now will enliven the voices of parents and educators so that children facing acute and chronic illness will receive all the necessary resources to have meaningful learning experiences.
About the Author
Diane Mayse serves as a consultant in the digital learning field and is a Fellow for the Digital Learning Collaborative.