The Inventor Is In: The Nashville Children’s Hospital With A Mobile Makerspace

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Credit: Noah Nelson/Youth Radio
Credit: Noah Nelson/Youth Radio

All around the country, computer hackers, artists, and other do-it-yourselfers are meeting up in “makerspaces,” to share tools and build cool stuff together, like robots or musical instruments. Makerspaces are popping up in all sorts of places: school auditoriums, libraries, under tents at community festivals, and now, even at the hospital.

At the Monroe Caroll Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, the makerspace comes in the form of a large, metal cart, carrying materials and tools young patients can use to create objects. The Children’s Hospital services patients from all over the region, and many of those kids routinely experience long hospital stays.

Emily Neblett, 17, is one such patient. Emily has cystic fibrosis, so she spends a lot of time in the hospital.

“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.”

Hospital stays can be isolating for kids, and keeping up with schoolwork can get tricky. That’s where Gokul Krishnan comes in. He’s a Ph.D. student at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education – and he has created a Mobile Makerspace.

“Many patients who have chronic illnesses are not allowed to leave their room,” said Krishnan, “due to safety reasons and cross contamination issues. That’s why we bring the mobile makerspace into the patient’s room.”

The space is a metal cart filled with the equipment and materials you would need for small-scale engineering projects.

“On the cart,” said Emily, “I am looking at flashing lights and colorful drawers’ full of circuits, wires, play-doh – and a huge white 3D printer.”

At first she wasn’t into it, but then Emily realized there was one thing she really wanted.

“I decided to make the doorbell just because my nurses would never knock. So I put a sign, on my door that said: ‘Ring My Doorbell.’”

But to get that bell, she had to build it… and maybe accidentally learn a little about math and engineering along the way.

The point of this makerspace isn’t just to give kids with long hospital stays something cool to do. It’s a pilot program designed by Krishnan to solve the problem of teaching those all-important science and math skills to kids inside hospitals.

The project started when Krishnan met Brandon Bradley in September of 2013. Brandon was in the hospital getting treatment for acute mylo leukemia.

“I was planning for my senior year just taking my math and reading classes and filling the rest of the slots up with engineering classes,” said Brandon. “I asked my homebound teacher if she knew anybody, and she said she might know some people, and a couple of weeks later Gokul walked in.”

“He was the first person I actually interacted with as a volunteer,” said Krishnan.

Brandon made a “nurse nightlight.” It just lit up the toilet and trash areas, said Brandon, “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, which started a serious trial this Winter at the Nashville hospital. One cart has become two, and pre-med students are now being trained to expand the project further.

“I think that the cart is an amazing thing,” said Emily. “This cart made my hospital stay the best hospital stay I’ve ever had.”

Krishnan’s pilot program creates a new role for patients. Now they can be inventors, too—and part of a global maker movement.

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