Assistant Professor Megan Nickels, creator of UCF PedsAcademy, was named Thursday as the spring 2019 Marchioli Collective Impact Award winner. The award recognizes a faculty or staff member or team who is implementing an innovative initiative, program or project that has produced measurable outcomes related to the priorities of the UCF Collective Impact Strategic Plan.

PedsAcademy, a first-of-its-kind program, provides specialized schooling to chronically ill children tailored to their specific disease while undergoing care at Nemour’s Children’s Hospital. The program includes more than 50 UCF faculty and student teachers who teach STEM curriculum to the children.

What started as an idea when Nickels was in her doctoral program in mathematics education at Illinois State University, is now a comprehensive model for what education looks like for children who are hospitalized long-term.

“After years of teaching elementary school, I missed the daily interactions with children when I went back to school to complete my Ph.D.,” Nickels said. “I was trying to think about what I could do to be around them again, and that’s when I realized there was a children’s hospital not too far away from the university, so I signed up to be a volunteer.”

“None of my training or years as a teacher had prepared me for what these children encounter in terms of education and how best to teach them. Chronically ill children are a forgotten population.”

Nickels says she couldn’t have predicted the overwhelming need of educating the children who were hospitalized.

“None of my training or years as a teacher had prepared me for what these children encounter in terms of education and how best to teach them,” she says. “Chronically ill children are a forgotten population.”

PedsAcademy does three things: studies the specific needs of children according to their disease; provides tailored curriculum for their needs, and prepares student-teachers to teach hospitalized children.

“We are meeting a need that is not met, and, largely, not even understood,” Nickels says.

Instructors are instrumental in teaching children through science, technology, education and mathematics lessons using virtual reality, robotics, 3D printers and makerspaces. They are also involved in the research of how to teach children based on their disease. For example, cancer affects working memory, so Nickels’ team develops curriculum and teaching methods to help prevent memory loss. The team of researchers is currently beginning work on developing profiles for children with spinal muscular atrophy.

One of the inspiring things about PedsAcademy is its ability to be modeled elsewhere – which is a large part of why Nickels’ received the Marchioli Award. Nickels is in talks with a few children’s hospitals on how to replicate the model. She credits her partnership with Nemours Children’s Hospital on making it all possible.

If it’s not feasible for a hospital to have educators on-site, Nickels has another option: virtual reality.

“Our immersive virtual reality, or VR, platforms will provide multiuser virtual classrooms if a hospital can’t support in-room educators,” Nickels says. “All they need is the equipment and their patients could [virtually] attend PedsAcademy here in Orlando.”

Thanks to the $5,000 in prize money from the Marchioli Impact Award, Nickels says she will purchase additional VR equipment to take expand the program. The award was made possible by Nelson Marchioli ‘72, chairman of the UCF Foundation.

Lisa Jones, associate provost for strategy, says UCF’s strategic plan requires the university to innovate and then scale successful innovations to achieve greater impacts, as this project has done.

“Through Collective Impact, we are leveraging UCF’s existing culture of innovation and focusing the innovations towards solutions that help us move the needle on our metrics,” she says. “We created this award as one way we can encourage and reward innovations that are aligned with our strategic plan.

“Faculty and staff are the heartbeat of all that we do at UCF. We cannot and will not fulfill the promises outlined in the plan without faculty and staff using their creativity to test new ideas or enhance existing programs/projects to help achieve the metrics and Dr. Nickels is the perfect example.”