University of Central Florida Professor Megan Nickels, whose work teaching mathematics, robotics and science to children with critical illnesses has been nationally recognized, has received a $1.2 million NASA grant to create mobile science and technology carts in partnership with the Orlando Science Center.

Nickels and a team of UCF scientists and educators are creating a curriculum and, eventually, building mobile-cart exhibits with the science center that will teach science, engineering, technology and robotics at three Orlando children’s hospitals: Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children, Nemours Children’s Hospital and Florida Hospital for Children.

“This is really exciting on a number of levels,” said Nickels, an assistant professor of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education at UCF, whose research focuses on teaching hospitalized children science, technology, engineering and math. “What we know from working with sick kids is that because of their isolation – and it’s no one’s fault – they lose the ability to give back to others. They can’t contribute to their classrooms, homes, communities and this gives them the opportunity to do some meaningful work.”

Just how meaningful? Nickels said the STEM satellite carts will include work the children will perform that will be used by NASA scientists later.

“We’re having them contribute to our understanding of near-Earth asteroids, for example,” she said. “That work will inform NASA missions at a later time. That’s meaningful.”

Each hospital will eventually have three of the mobile carts, which are space themed and include diagnostic tools, computers and virtual reality equipment. One cart will deal with all aspects of the OSIRIS-REx mission. Another will be all about Mars and the third will be about The Stars and Beyond, which will encompass other space exploration and planetary science.

Nickels said the partnership with the Orlando Science Center was critical because the NASA grant proposal could not be submitted by a university.

“I approached them and asked if they would be willing to work with me and UCF,” she said. “They are so gracious, such wonderful people. I know they have so many requests each year and the fact that they agreed to work with me is an honor.”

Administrators at the museum saw a dire need for education to an underserved group of children between the ages of 10 and 18.

“Children with critical illness can struggle with formal education due to the fact that their hospitalization keeps them from engaging in active study and attending classes” said science center president and CEO JoAnn Newman. “These engaging mobile exhibits will not only shorten the learning gap during their hospitalization, it will help motivate these children to pursue STEM learning and careers. Providing high-level engaging and authentic STEM activities to this audience through mobile exhibits is unprecedented.”

The UCF team includes Nickels and physics Professor Humberto Campins, a member of the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu; physics Professor Daniel Britt, who has been part of the science teams of two NASA missions; Lisa Dieker, a Pegasus professor and Lockheed Martin eminent scholar chair, who provided guidance on using technology to teach science and mathematics; and Professor Mike Hynes, director of the School of Teaching, Learning and Leadership in the College of Education & Human Performance, among others.

The science center and UCF will incorporate NASA data and artifacts from prior NASA missions, UCF planetary-science collections, and Kennedy Space Center resources into the mobile-cart exhibits. Nickels is designing the curriculum to go with each STEM cart; all will be ready for use at the hospitals in fall of 2018.

Volunteers from BASE Camp Children’s Cancer Foundation will be trained by science center educators to facilitate these programs during hospital visits. UCF’s Pediatric Initiatives Group, which has 65 students in majors from education to science, are volunteering to train the people implementing the programs at the hospitals.

The grant was strongly supported by Florida Sen. Bill Nelson.

“Space exploration captivates the mind and engages the spirit,” Nelson said. “This program will allow NASA, UCF and the Orlando Science Center to work together to help inspire and educate some of the kids who need it the most.”

Nickels said this program is just beginning, but she sees it growing nationally. She has hopes of taking it to other children’s hospitals around the nation and is in conversations with LEGO to have the company partner and freely distribute similar carts around the United States.

“This goes beyond just us,” she said. “Our STEM Satellites program brings about the realization of this goal and marks a crucial turning point in how educational programs are conceived and delivered to children in hospitals.”