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About Sickkids
About SickKids

March 14, 2018

Engineering curiosity: How the SickKids Robotics Club is introducing patients to STEM

By Anastasia Semionov, Intern, Communications & Public Affairs

Curious laughs and giggles spread throughout the classroom when a special guest paid a visit to the SickKids Robotics Club last month. The program hosted Toronto Police Const. Nick Sword and a robot from The Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear Explosives Response Team (CBRNE).

Started in 2014 and recognized each March 14, Science Education Day is a chance to celebrate and thank all those who share a passion for science with kids and adults. Today, we're going behind the scenes at SickKids to show you an amazing program that does just that.

The SickKids Robotics Club ran every Tuesday and Thursday for the month of February. Participants learned to work together on tasks, which ranged from coding a robot to paint their initials to programming them to strategically push through blocks. Any patient at the Hospital is welcome to join in on the fun.

The robots used to support these inquiry-based exercises were loaned to SickKids for a month by the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). TDSB Teachers at SickKids work with patients receiving medical care at the Hospital to support their learning needs and goals. The education program offers elementary and secondary bedside teaching, along with dedicated classrooms for the epilepsy program, the substance abuse day treatment program and the eating disorders day hospital program.

Toronto Police Const. Nick Sword joins the SickKids Robotics Club in the Epilepsy Classroom.
Toronto Police Const. Nick Sword joins the SickKids Robotics Club in the Epilepsy Classroom.

On this day, the class had the unique opportunity to see how a bomb disposal robot works. Const. Sword demonstrated how the robot can move objects and open boxes. The patients even suggested some names for the robot with Cedric and E.T being the popular choices. “It’s important to show kids the relevance and utility of robotics beyond its recreational uses,” said Const. Sword. “I hope this experience will drive them to realize their passions and cultivate an interest in how robotics can be used to support the local community.”

Bomb disposal robots are remotely controlled by a human operator from afar.
Bomb disposal robots are remotely controlled by a human operator from afar.

This is the second time Kathy Anderson and Sharlene Bourjot, TDSB teachers at SickKids, have run the Robotics Club since piloting the program in 2017. Anderson said the experiential learning opportunity provides a sense of normalcy for children and teens who often miss school due to extended hospital stays. The program aims to inspire an interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by exploring key design and robotics skills. However, Anderson and Bourjot have also found the program benefits the psychosocial well-being of the patients who choose to participate.

“Bringing in community members is so important for the kids to feel like they’re a part of something bigger,” said Anderson. “Though they’re part of a small community within the Hospital, some of the kids stay here for so long they start to feel disconnected from the broader population.”

Photo of robot that looks like a bulldozer and students
The excited students gathered around the robot. "It looks like a bulldozer!" "Can it pick up my water bottle?" "Can it withstand exposure to poisonous gas?"

The club has created an opportunity for other departments at SickKids to contribute to the success of the Robotics Club. 

Ian Fisher, a Biomedical Engineer at SickKids, volunteers at the club to help the kids and teens with programming the robots. “Seeing kids of varying abilities having fun making a robot move under their command and making personal connections with them is extremely rewarding.” says Fisher. 

The patients wrapped up their month-long adventure with a visit to the SickKids pharmacy, where they had the chance to see an automated handling and distribution robot in action.