Gokul Krishnan Visits Fogarty Institute to Share His Vision of Using Makerspaces to Inspire Young Patients to Learn, Create and Innovate

Imagine a setting where young patients confined to hospital rooms for weeks at a time have the opportunity to invent and build anything their mind can imagine. That’s the environment that Gokul Krishnan, Ph.D., set out to create when he launched “Maker Therapy,” an initiative born from his Ph.D. research at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education. In his study, funded by a grant from Intel Corporation, Gokul developed the world’s first mobile makerspace in a hospital setting for isolated, chronically ill patients.

The concept of makerspaces, a collaborative work area where students, budding engineers, artists and entrepreneurs gather to share ideas, invent and create using a wide range of tools and materials, is gaining traction globally, and they can now be found in a variety of settings, including libraries, schools, businesses and museums.

Gokul adapted the makerspace model to meet the needs of young, chronically ill patients, who often feel socially, emotionally and intellectually isolated due to lengthy hospital stays by designing and building a mobile makerspace to station in patients’ rooms for the duration of their treatment. “My goal was to provide a creative and collaborative innovation space that not only stimulates the minds of the young patients but also serves as a therapeutic environment that promotes healing and well-being,” said Gokul.

The mobile makerspaces that Gokul designed were colorful, bright and engaging workspaces equipped with a variety of physical and digital technologies, such as circuit building kits and a 3D-printer. While the mobile makerspaces offered an escape from the dull routing of hospital life, they also encouraged collaboration among patients by providing opportunities to talk to others who were going through the same health and life issues via large touchscreen tablets that included communication software. Patients could not only devise and implement personal, meaningful projects, but use the touchscreens to collaborate with other patients if they wished.

“We designed the mobile makerspace with input from patients to ensure it included all the ‘bells and whistles’ needed to inspire them to learn and interact with other children, either in person or if they were in isolation, via a monitor,” said Gokul. “The kids’ inventions never cease to impress me: From a ‘mood’ alert system and privacy doorbells, to a nebulizer dryer and even a night light for a pill cup, patients were using their imagination to create solutions to some of the challenges they faced during their treatment.”

The project made hospital stays much more enjoyable for kids and, just as importantly, greatly benefitted their quality of life and mental and physical health. For example, one young girl who was isolated in her room as a result of her cystic fibrosis treatment increased her number of daily steps from 320 to 2,400 after just seven days of tinkering with the mobile makerspace.

Drawing inspiration from an aspiring engineer

Gokul’s source of inspiration for the makerspace stems from Brandon Bradley, a teen cancer patient he met during his first day as a volunteer at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. To support the young man’s aspiration to become an engineer, Gokul gave him a “mystery box” filled with tech and non-tech materials, such as LEDs, string, plastic cups and a microcontroller, and asked him to invent an object using these tools.

Overnight, Brandon built a night light for nurses designed to illuminate the room just enough to see, preventing them from turning on bright lights that wake patients. The success of the “mystery box” drove Gokul to engage with other patients and build on his concept of providing an innovative, hands-on learning tool.

Customizing the spaces to serve different needs

The mobile makerspace’s purpose and success has piqued the interest of several hospitals, including Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford and also Ronald McDonald House Stanford, where Gokul is developing different maker platforms that will best suit the needs of patients, siblings and families in various settings.

Different maker platforms include those of entirely dedicated makerspaces equipped with higher-end technologies and suitable for large-scale collaborative projects and smaller “pop-up” makerspaces, which are modular and flexible and thus ideal for small areas.

Over the past year, with support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) Award, Gokul has designed and opened the world’s first family-centered makerspace at the Ronald McDonald House Stanford; a pop-up makerspace that serves the Cancer Ward for Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford; and is in the process of opening the world’s first makerspace in a Teen Lounge at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford.

Gokul is currently exploring ways to roll out the program to other children’s hospitals throughout the nation and conducting research to better understand the makerspace’s impact on patients’ health and ability to learn.

Gokul recently visited the Fogarty Institute to share his vision and the initial designs of several of these creative maker platforms. His ties to the Institute stem from Eric Johnson and James Wall, MD, co-founders of the Fogarty Institute company Radial Medical, who are strong proponent of the project. Wall, a surgeon at Stanford and the Stanford Biodesign assistant director, has also served as a mentor to Gokul.

The group explored potential ways to collaborate, with the aim of establishing a long-term program for hospitals that will further enhance the patient experience for this very special group of children and young adults.

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