Published: May 21, 2018 By
Jernigan with kids

Brian Jernigan, director of summer STEM programs for CU Science Discovery, looks at designs for a new educational toy with students at Ryan Elementary School. (Credit: Jade Cody/Boulder Valley School District) 

Brian Jernigan, director of summer STEM programs for CU Science Discovery, is working to bring science learning to students who can’t come to class in person: young patients in pediatric hospitals.

That goal was on display May 17 in Mark Appling’s class at Ryan Elementary School in Lafayette, Colorado. There, third-grader Jaejune Lee played with an unusual toy. A little bigger than an iPad, the game was designed by Jernigan and a team of mechanical engineering students at CU Boulder for kids at Children’s Hospital of Colorado in Aurora. It’s a Plinko-style toy that uses rolling beads and twisting dials to teach young learners about how water cycles from rivers to clouds and back again. 

Jaejune Lee

Jaejune Lee plays with a prototype of the Rain Game. (Credit: Jade Cody/Boulder Valley School District)

And it got Jaejune’s vote: “I thought it was pretty cool,” he said, because of “how we learned how the water cycle works.”

Jaejune and his classmates aren’t patients themselves. But over the past year, pupils at Ryan Elementary worked with the CU Boulder group to help develop this toy—brainstorming ideas and product testing early versions. Jernigan came to class that morning to show the final result of that hard work.

He said that the project convinced him that engineering such resources can be empowering for kids both in and out of the hospital. 

“These kids are talking about their experiences. They’re getting it out in the open,” Jernigan said. “You’ve heard of art therapy, and you’ve heard of music therapy. We’re looking at design therapy.”

And it’s been a success. In April, Jernigan delivered the first prototype of the toy, dubbed the “Rain Game,” to Children’s Hospital at a ceremony that included an appearance by Miss Colorado. He’s also partnering with staff at the hospital to hold a workshop where patients can practice designing their own educational and therapeutic toys.

The need for such resources is huge, added Jernigan, who also volunteers at the hospital in his free time. “I see how bored these kids are,” he said. “Anything you bring that is special or engaging is really going to lift their spirits and lift their parents’ spirits.”

But that’s no easy feat. To keep kids safe, Children’s Hospital follows strict rules for the toys patients can play with: no sharp edges, easy to disinfect, no bright colors or flashing lights that could trigger seizures. That makes designing even a simple educational toy an engineering challenge.

To meet that challenge, Jernigan tapped a group of students in the senior design course in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He gave those students a unique charge: “I told them, ‘I want the kids to drive your excitement,’” he said. “I want you to spend time with them and really understand the client.”

Rachel Sharpe

CU Boulder mechanical engineering student Rachel Sharpe helps students at Ryan Elementary to make their own board game. (Credit: Jade Cody/Boulder Valley School District)

The work was supported, in part, by a CU Boulder Outreach Award with assistance from the university’s Idea Forge and Design Center Colorado.

The students jumped at the chance, paying several visits to Ryan Elementary and a preschool in Broomfield called Bal Swan Children’s Center. And, Jernigan said, these young focus groups were full of good ideas. An early version of the toy, for example, used silver beads to represent water. One student at Bal Swan had a different idea: why not switch to blue beads?

These visits also showed Jernigan the therapeutic value of the design process. Many of the young students had friends or relatives who had been in the hospital—designing a toy helped them to work through their feelings on those struggles. Others were just happy that adults were listening to their ideas and taking them seriously. 

Mark Appling, a science teacher at Ryan Elementary, said that his students enjoyed that responsibility. “If you give kids a real problem and a real stake in problem solving,” he said, “they tend to do great things.”

It’s those great things that drew CU Boulder student Rachel Sharpe to working with Jernigan. She’s a junior studying mechanical engineering and two years ago, helped him to hold a science fair, complete with hands-on activities, in the main lobby of Children’s Hospital. 

Sharpe joined Jernigan in the visit to Ryan Elementary and spent the morning working with students in Appling’s class, which encourages students to explore their own science and engineering projects. She helped a group of children to cut out figures for a custom board game and chatted with Jaejune Lee and another classmate as they built a cardboard train that transports puzzles. 

When it comes to working with kids, “what’s exciting is how creative they are,” Sharpe said. “They’re fearless in how they solve problems.”