Published: Aug. 25, 2016
A CU student watches a patient at STEAM Camp control robots using a tablet.

Kelly Gazarik, a CU Boulder undergraduate biochemical engineering student, right, watches Children's Hospital patient Daniel Rozdilsky control robots with a tablet computer. (Photo by Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado)

Fiona Brua, 12, is sitting in a wheel chair at Children’s Hospital Colorado, watching attentively as a small robot spins in circles, lights flashing and bells ringing. She directs it with an iPad, discovering countless ways to make it spin and change its noises and light patterns. Fiona has been in the hospital for a week with appendicitis, and this is a nice break.

“It can get boring, being in the hospital,” she said. A CU student watches a STEAM Camp participant at Children's Hospital launch a paper airplane.

Fiona doesn’t know that her fun afternoon learning about robots was happening because of a conversation Brian Jernigan of CU’s Science Discovery program had with a father whose child was battling cancer and spending time in the hospital. Science Discovery offers summer science camps, afterschool programs, and other services to K-12 students, and Jernigan realized there were kids in the hospital who had no access to those programs.

“I thought Science Discovery could do something positive for those kids,” said Jernigan.

Undergrads embrace challenge of creating STEAM kits

Several undergraduate students who work for Science Discovery as teaching assistants were interested in creating educational kits that children in the hospital could use to learn about science. Jernigan met with Kathleen McBride, director of the Association of Volunteers at Children’s Colorado, and they agreed to work together on an outreach event that would let the CU students try out their ideas with patients at the hospital.

Zee Paquette, 20, a CU chemistry major, and Zachary Arbogast, 19, a CU aerospace engineering major, created a paper engineering kit that lets children start by building a simple cube and then progressively create more challenging 3D objects.

"The goal is to take a flat surface and help kids visualize how it can be folded up and take on shapes," said Paquette. "This gives the kids something they can take home."

The students had to follow strict guidelines to create science kits that were safe in a hospital setting. To prevent choking, none of the pieces could be smaller than a toilet paper tube. Materials also had to be disposable or able to be wiped down with disinfectants to avoid infection. The first kits are designed for children in elementary school grades.

McBride said she is excited about the impact the project will have on patients, because it will "introduce them to the exciting world of science and provide a sense of normalcy to them during their hospital stay."

Volunteers will work with children as they use the science kits. The project is being funded by the CU Boulder Office for Outreach and Engagement.

First step toward a bigger vision

The event at Children’s Colorado is just the first step in creating a package of science kits that could eventually be used at hospitals all over the country. In the fall, Science Discovery will hand over the project to a group of CU mechanical engineering students working on a senior design project. Students from the program will work with Children’s Colorado over the next two years to create prototypes, including a training program for volunteers.

"One of the challenges will be making the activities more complex and suitable for teens, we need to figure out how to scope it upwards," said Daniel Knight, a research associate in mechanical engineering who will be working with the students.

The CU students have already made a difference for the children in the hospital.

Danny Rozdilsky, 9, was fascinated by the robots and eagerly used his iPad to direct one. Danny is in the hospital often because of a genetic condition.

“He’s picking it up already, he loves it,” said his mother, Meredith Rozdilsky. “This gives him a chance to get out of his room and be a normal kid.” 

Learn more about CU Science Discovery. 

This article originally appeared in CU Boulder Today on Aug. 9, 2016.