Nemours Children’s Hospital and UCF today announced a first-of-its kind program that provides highly specialized schooling to chronically ill children in a way that’s tailored to their specific disease. Called UCF’s PedsAcademy at Nemours Children’s Hospital, the new joint program involves more than 50 UCF faculty and student teachers working closely with Nemours physicians daily to deliver STEM education to hospitalized patients using virtual reality, robotics and other high-tech learning tools.

“These children can miss out on weeks, months or even years of schooling,” says Megan Nickels, a UCF assistant professor in the College of Community Innovation and Education and the College of Medicine, and PedsAcademy faculty director. “Our goal is to provide a rich, meaningful, educational experience so they aren’t just keeping pace with their healthy, typically developing peers, but they are actually getting extraordinary educational opportunities while in the hospital.”

The program launched in August and uses robots, immersive virtual reality, telepresence, 3D printers and MakerSpaces to deliver lessons that range from basic computer programming to learning about undersea worlds. Lessons are personalized to a child’s interests by incorporating themes such as superheroes, animals, or sports. Teaching methods are based on Nickel’s research into cognitive development and the effects of certain diseases on learning, so patients are taught in ways that are conducive to their physical limitations and sensory conditions.

For example, a child with cancer who likes superheroes might have a math session that features Spider-Man and uses robots to prompt engagement. Because chemotherapy can cause problems with focus, working memory, and identifying visual and spatial relationships, the assignment might center around an activity that involves mental rotation, repetitive programming and small increases in task difficulty.

“It’s such a nontraditional way of delivering education and is tailored in a way that is as fun as it is intellectually stimulating,” says Norman Jeune, director of Patient and Family Centered Care at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. “No one has done anything like this before.”

Instruction takes place at the bedside of inpatient children, and will soon begin in outpatient settings such as the Nemours’ Infusion Center where cancer and blood disorders, kidney disease, and immune-system disorders are treated. In some cases, the virtual-reality goggles and scenarios are such an effective distraction that they are used as an alternative to sedation during treatments.

“It’s such a nontraditional way of delivering education and is tailored in a way that is as fun as it is intellectually stimulating.” — Norman Jeune, director of Patient and Family Centered Care at Nemours Children’s Hospital

On an average day, up to 60 children are taught through PedsAcademy at Nemours. Patients can receive at least three hours of instruction per day and may begin participating in the program as soon as they are admitted. Instruction is for children up through 12th grade and also is available for siblings of the patients.

The PedsAcademy team is comprised of UCF faculty members, student researchers, postdoctoral scholars and dozens of student interns. The students, all pre-service teachers, complete a semester of study at Nemours and provide instruction to patients under the supervision of a faculty member. This gives them the opportunity to learn new skills for teaching special populations such as hospitalized children.

For UCF student Julisa Vinas, the mission of PedsAcademy hits home. In her third year at UCF as an accounting student, a mixture of illnesses led to her medically withdrawing from school and undergoing an extensive procedure to have a stem-cell transplant. Upon her recovery, she vowed to continue her education in something she felt would make an impact. She’s now in her senior year at UCF studying elementary education and a PedsAcademy intern.

“When this opportunity [PedsAcademy] came up, I thought this is perfect for me because I know what it feels like to be extremely ill and want to have an education, to want to go to school and not be able to. Being able to now go to these kids and provide that for them – it’s an amazing experience,” Vinas says.

The program was inspired by research that shows children who face life-threatening illnesses or suffer from chronic health conditions will have their education disrupted, often resulting in an inability to keep pace with their peers and perform at their grade level. This disruption in education can affect children into their later years by limiting their achievements and social mobility. Each year, eight out of every 100 children are hospitalized in the United States.

The program is funded through grants and private donations.

Visit the PedsAcademy website to learn more.