One fifth of school aged children in the US have a chronic medical illness and represent an underserved and educationally disadvantaged population. In particular, children with sickle cell disease (SCD) of all genotypes spend significant amounts of time in the medical settings and represent a potentially "captive audience" where hospitalization time can include educational activities. Accordingly, we saw an opportunity for Biomedical Engineering (BME) undergraduates at Georgia Institute of Technology, who are taught biology, medicine, engineering, and design to implement a new paradigm of K-12 Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) programming, where human physiology is used as a model framework. In collaboration with hospital school teachers at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, we created a novel educational program where we (1) leverage the patient's own medical experience as motivation for learning, (2) develop hands-on interactive activities to teach STEM concepts that are adaptable for the patient's cognitive level, (3) provide undergraduate students with high quality meaningful patient interactions and clinical experiences, and (4) provide innovative educational programming for hospitals.

The BME undergraduates enrolled in a human-centered design course focusing on iterative design, development and implementation of hands-on interactive STEM activities rooted in human physiology (Fig. 1A). Each activity contains state and national K-12 STEM standards. The BME undergraduates are well-suited to teach in the hospital environment, as they experience a strong STEM curriculum and are able to capture the true interdisciplinary nature of medical science in each activity. The undergraduates and patients are near-peer age, relationship-building occurs quickly, the patients admire them and enjoy their time together. During the 2018-19 school year we developed learning assessment questions for 2 of the most requested activities, assessing each SCD patient's mastery of the learning objectives.

In the Blood Jar activity (Fig. 1B), the SCD patient builds a model of blood, learning the composition, function of each component, and importance of hydration. Sixty-five patients participated, 43% of grade K - 2, 61% of 3 - 5, 85% of 6th through High School scored Thoroughly Demonstrated. In the Bone activity (Fig. 1C), each SCD patient constructs a bone model to understand the function and structure of a bone. Twenty-nine patients participated, 28% of grade K - 2, 30% of 3 - 5, 88% of 6 - 8, and 75% of high school scored Thoroughly Demonstrated. Patient feedback (Fig. 1D) has been overwhelmingly positive, stating the activities are "fun" and "engaging" and requesting additional visits from the BME undergraduates. BME undergraduate expressed growth and learning of: disease pathophysiology, teaching and learning styles, and effective and succinct communication skills.

In Georgia, Life Science is taught in 5th and 7th grade, our target demographic. Our results show at least 75% of patients in 6th grade and above demonstrated thorough understanding of the STEM topics taught, while K - 5 grade did not achieve that level of understanding. Lower scores for those patients are attributed to difficulties remembering new scientific vocabulary. Many of the BME undergraduates in our program are pre-med and use the experiences and meaningful interactions with patients in their medical school applications. As stated by a BME undergraduate after a patient interaction, "the white blood cells are like soldiers in the army! I like that! This analogy prompted the patient to think of his future. It reminded me the littlest things can make a big difference. This makes me even more excited to go into medicine." Our program represents an innovative approach to teaching STEM by: engaging SCD children, who are uniquely suited to learn important STEM concepts within the context of their own disease, provide learning to SCD patients during extended absences from school, allowing BME undergraduate students to design, develop, and teach STEM activities, provide meaningful clinical experience, and supplying quality educational programming for the hospital. This collaborative program can be straightforwardly implemented at other pediatric institutions with robust college volunteer programs and hospital school programs. Our activities can be exported and implemented at other institutions.

Disclosures

Lam:Sanguina, Inc: Current equity holder in private company.

Author notes

*

Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.