Introducing Maker Therapy

18-year-old Brandon spent eight hours inventing a nurse night light, and when he told Gokul, “I forgot I was in the hospital,” Gokul realized he was on to something.

How do you grow an idea? Gokul Krishnan, PhD, asked this question of himself as he developed the first-ever in-hospital innovation spaces. And it is also the spirit of this question which inspires the young creators involved in his Maker Therapy.

Gokul was a PhD student in Learning Sciences at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education when he first began volunteering at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Very quickly Gokul realized that there was very few activities to engage hospitalized teens. “Why should inventive teens stuck in the hospital be left out of the growing maker movement?” he asked himself. With no good answer to that question, Gokul decided it was time they be included.


The first patient Gokul worked with at the hospital was Brandon —  an 18-year-old young man hospitalized for Leukemia who was a bright and aspiring high school senior whose goal was to become an engineer.  To support Brandon’s engineering aspirations, Gokul provided him with a “Mystery Box” that held a variety of digital and physical materials, such as an Arduino micro-controller, LEDs, string, plastic cup, eraser and LEGO™s. Gokul then suggested that Brandon use these materials to design and make anything he could imagine. Overnight, Brandon designed and built a night-light. The purpose of the light was to illuminate a patient’s bathroom, thus allowing nurses to determine if any trash needed to be disposed of without turning on a bright light and disturbing the patient. Just like an engineer, Brandon identified a problem and came up with a solution using the materials at hand. Brandon spent eight hours on his invention, and when he told Gokul, “I forgot I was in the hospital,” Gokul realized he was on to something.

Since then, Gokul has been on a mission to create a more hopeful world for teens in hospitals through his Maker Therapy ( program. Gokul’s Maker Therapy allows teens to take control over getting their needs met by designing and creating inventions that are personally meaningful to them.  What do these teens make? Everything from artifacts to decorate their room, devices to solve privacy issues, gadgets to depict mood or wellbeing, to one of the most popular inventions—a way to prank the nurses!   One patient created a “Mood necklace” that used a system of colored lights to express how he felt. For example a green light from his necklace signified that he was in a good mood, but a red light meant that he was not in a good mood. So now, the patient wouldn’t need to respond to “How are we feeling today?” forty times a day!  Another idea from a patient was a “Pooping Bell” because every time the patient was in the bathroom she could never hear people knock on her door, so she would always be surprised and very annoyed when she discovered that visitors or hospital staff were in her room. So with the creation of her “Pooping Bell,” Lori could now tell when someone was outside of the bathroom when she heard the loud sound of the buzzer coming from the doorbell.

Nurse night light

Nurse night light

Gokul’s Maker Therapy come in two forms: mobile Makerspaces and most recently stand-alone Pop-Up Innovation Spaces. Knowing the inventiveness of these young people, Gokul first engaged teens and young adults at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in the design of these mobile Makerspaces. Patients provided a number of helpful design ideas, suggesting that the mobile Makerspace: (1) be colorful and bright, (2) serve as their own workspace, (3) encourage collaboration, (4) and be engaging. As it turns out, most of the creating happens late at night, so one of the first ideas that patients suggested for the design was to fit the mobile units with strips of multicolored LED strips so that patients could control the look of their mobile Makerspaces according to their mood and not need to turn on the irritating hospital overhead florescent lights when creating. Having access to a 3D printer was also high up on the teens’ wish list, so each mobile Makerspace comes equipped with one.  Large touchscreen tables with communication software on the mobile units foster collaboration between patients isolated to their rooms or physically on different floors.

Mood Necklace

Mood Necklace

The impact of these mobile Makerspaces? These young patients are excited to come back to the hospital!  In addition, Gokul discovered through research that isolated hospitalized teens who took advantage of the mobile Makerspaces were getting out of their bed more often, and on average, their step count and physical activity increased nearly seven and a half fold from 320 steps to 2,400 steps — now that is the start of a movement, literally!  Interactions between teens also increased, meaning patients are connecting through their making, which helps ease the loneliness and isolation of their hospital rooms.

Mobile Makerspace Media Links

CBS Evening News: “Giving hospital-bound kids space to invent.”

NPR All Things Considered: ‘Maker Space’ Allows Kids To Innovate, Learn In The Hospital

"Pooping" bell

“Pooping” bell

We aren’t the only organization recognizing the great work of Gokul.  He was awarded a significant grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF); received the first “Design-Make-Play” Award from the New York Hall of Science, and was even recognized by the White House in 2015 as an “Honorary Maker” for his pioneering work in children’s hospitals.  Just recently Gokul opened the world’s first Innovation Pop-Up space for Adolescent and Young Adult Cancer Patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford (SAYAC Innovation Pop-Up Space) and is currently partnering with Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) Bay Area in bringing state of the art Innovation spaces and mobile Makerspaces for patients, families, and siblings. The partnership with RMHC will enable Gokul to nimbly replicate innovation spaces at different locations that will adapt to culture and populations served at each institution.

SAYAC Innovation Pop-Up Space

Innovation Space Media Links

Adam Savage’s Maker Tour: Stanford Adolescent & Young Adult Cancer Program

Stanford Children’s Health: New “makerspace” gives teen cancer patients room to invent

KTVU FOX2 News: Innovative center for teens coping with cancer at Stanford hospital

So how you grow an idea? Solid vision, some risk-taking, and a lot of determination.  What do you envision to help move the needle for sick kids?