Dr. Megan Nickels

When I tell people that I research how critically and terminally ill children learn mathematics through robotics I’m usually met with a thoughtful, but not entirely unexpected, question:

What is the purpose of learning mathematics for a child who’s dying?

My answer is simple. Children diagnosed with critical and terminal illnesses learn mathematics for the same reason their healthy peers do—to live a life they have chosen for themselves and have reason to value.

The length of that life is not a precursor to providing children with real opportunities to take full advantage of the range of experiences mathematics might offer.

Yet, for many critically and terminally ill children, meaningful mathematical opportunities are non-existent. This is where computer science can make a difference.

Computer Science Education Week is a timely reminder that we need ways of enabling the most marginalized children to be included in these activities. Not providing opportunities for these children to participate in computer science opportunities such as Hour of Code and other mathematical activities constitutes a social injustice that schools and hospitals are not breaking down for critically and terminally ill children.

Although computer science in its own right should be viewed as a core subject for all children, it can also make possible a rigorous and meaningful mathematics education.

Indeed computer science activities such as programming robots allow for low threshold, no ceiling critical thinking tasks that are naturally rich in mathematical content and suited towards each child’s unique interests and capabilities. In short, children learn mathematics by doing mathematics in the programming environment.

The examples are endless: To turn the robotic Mars rover through its planned mission the child must investigate the relationship between motor rotation and robot rotation by programming his robot to rotate at every angle on a unit circle mat; To have a robotic dog run a scaled version of the Iditarod the child must program the robot to measure the distance and speed of their run, run up or down an incline, and determine if the relationship between time and distance was linear; To create geared prosthetic limbs the child must recognize the algebraic relationship between speed and number of teeth on the gears.

And the findings are intriguing.

In my research, I document the effects of using robotics to teach mathematics to critically and terminally ill children. Findings indicate the robotics leverages and enriches the child’s mathematical content knowledge and heuristic knowledge.

I also investigate the effect of the robotics on the children’s physiological and socio-emotional well-being. Average mean arterial, systolic, and diastolic blood pressures decreased during chemotherapy and other procedures when the children were engaged in robotic activities, providing the first direct evidence that the use of robotics for mathematics education could moderate stress responses. Additionally, all children indicated the robotics tasks provided their first happy consciously mathematical experiences.

While the students I study who participate in robotics activities benefit from what it offers, the fact that a significant proportion of critically and terminally ill children do not take part in such activities is undoubtedly an issue of exclusion.

In her own words, a 14 year-old cancer patient, Amelia, explained to me why she was upset that other critically ill children did not have access to the robotics activities.

I was just upset because all of my robots have just been about numbers and stuff and teaching me how to learn and that’s important. Different numbers to do different things. I just think you know like everybody’s world is made up of numbers. Maybe other kids don’t think about them all the time, but we do all the time, everyday. You’ve got numbers for ANC [absolute neutrophil count] and platelets and white blood cell counts and then you’ve got that big number you know the one that says ‘Hey here’s your chance of getting to be grown up.’ Those numbers are always scary but maybe I don’t know less scary or something if you understand something about numbers. And then I don’t know I guess I think now like numbers and programming really could be for making things–things you might need or just stuff that is just really beautiful like my [flower] robot.

For my part, I’ll continue to work tirelessly to bring programming activities to critically and terminally ill children and to research educational interventions that may serve them well in both their immediate situations and in futurity, and I am thankful to every individual who furthers the cause of computer science education.This is important work that must continue and must become widespread.

Sign up to host an Hour of Code event in your community, your school, or your hospital. On December 8th, students from all majors at the University of Central Florida came together for our inaugural Hour of Code to learn about the importance of computer science education and how computer science can champion change for disaffected populations of students such as critically and terminally ill children.

Now we will charge on to do the work to make computer science accessible to all children, looking forward to a time in which we study the mathematics education of critically and terminally ill children not because it is detached, dispassionate, and ineffective but because it stands as an exemplar.

I look forward to a time in the future when these children are over represented in the STEM field as a result of their experiences with computer science. I look forward to more children telling a story that ends like Amelia’s:

I never really saw how math made up my world before the robots. Megan says that’s seeing through a glass, darkly. That means you don’t see something clearly. I think that applies to how teachers teach math to kids with cancer and other diseases. It might be the same for healthy kids too, but I wouldn’t know. I don’t remember much of being a kid a without cancer, except that I hated math then too. What I know now is you have to teach math differently to kids who are very sick. You can’t just expect us to do worksheets and understand what it is we are supposed to learn. And you can’t expect us to learn if you send us nothing at all. The robots mattered to me. They were mine. I got to choose everything I wanted to do and wanted to learn. When I was learning math to make my robot work, I was learning math that was important to me. You never do something only once with a robot, so the math I learned I used over and over again. I’ll never forget it now because it’s mine.

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Dr. Megan Nickels is an Assistant Professor of Mathematics Education in the College of Education and Human Performance at the University of Central Florida. Follow Megan on Twitter, @megannickels

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