From its interactive exhibit halls, labs and workshops, to an observatory and seasonal experiences, Orlando Science Center’s (OSC’s) mission is to inspire science learning for life.
The center is also an invaluable resource for the local community, sparking curiosity in science careers for future generations. Each year, its STEM-focused educational programs reach 153,000 students and educators from schools and community organizations.
So, when a grant opportunity from NASA and the University of Central Florida (UCF) came along, OSC’s education specialist Michael Kmietowicz knew where it could put these resources to good use.
A growing number of studies link chronic illness and hospitalization in children to increased barriers to learning. Symptoms and treatment of illnesses can have a knock-on effect on attention, memory and learning, which may lead to diminished academic attainment and socioemotional skills.
Michael said “When kids are in hospital for longer than a night or two, they experience learning loss because they’re not in school. They can’t do math and science lessons, and they fall behind.”
To bridge this learning gap, the OSC set out to work with three local hospitals on a two-part ‘STEM Satellites’ project to support and engage inpatient children (fifth graders and above) while they were absent from school.
“The goal was to give them this content so they could work on it during their stay and hopefully reinforce some of those skills” he continued.
With the help of trained hospital teachers and volunteers, the project guided kids aged 9+ on a fun space-themed mission. To develop their STEM skills and knowledge, they set off on two exercises – ‘Mission Mars’ (focusing on the planet Mars), and ‘Mission Stars’ (to understand other stars in the galaxy).
What a great way to inspire awareness and interest in NASA’s mission and field of work too!
Michael said “We wanted to highlight what different individuals who work at NASA and in space science can do. We looked at what NASA has done historically, what they’re doing going forward and built the whole suite of activities around that.”
To suit a hospital environment, the OSC knew that the project needed to be hands-on, fun, adaptable to different children’s needs, easy to pick up and put down in short bursts, and accessible to move around the hospital. No small feat!
Enter OSC’s mobile exhibits – shiny new wheelie carts carrying equipment for each mission – branded with OSC, NASA and the UCF logos!
The biggest challenge for the OSC was in the ‘Mission Stars’ mission. Kids would build an Orrery (a model solar system) made from Lego and other hardware, to track how light moves from a star to earth. It was important for them to learn the concept of a planetary transit (when a planet crosses in front of its star, light is blocked, resulting in a dip in light). The team also wanted to teach students how they could automate the Orrery to move on its own – developing key technological skills as a result.
So, what kit would be best to demonstrate this? Michael and the team were in search of hands-on equipment which would be easy to use, work with the Lego and effortlessly automate the process.
The team tested out various solutions, but the SAM Labs equipment and SAM Studio platform was a clear choice because it was easy to use.
“The software was very intuitive for the kids to work on. And it worked well with our Lego pieces and the other components we were using for the Orrery.”, Michael said.
The team chose the SAM Labs motor, LED light, a slider switch and push button to automate the Lego solar system. Our SAM Studio software came in just as handy – connecting to the hardware via Bluetooth and guiding kids on how to piece the kit together with visual instructions. A perfect pairing!
Click here to view the full demonstration video!
Building a seamlessly automated model solar system with SAM Labs helped the OSC achieve their mission to bridge a gap in learning for kids in hospital. The project’s sense of adventure also fuelled kids’ creativity, and an interest in NASA and space exploration.
“Every time I’ve gone in with the kids, even when we were prototyping, they really, really loved it. They have fun just building the stuff, playing with Legos. They really like the free exploring part.” said Michael.
As you can build SAM Labs blocks in unique ways, students have been able to test out different methods in their experiments, creating results that even the OSC didn’t expect.
“If they figure out how to change the color on the LED, they then play around with that and the different settings. We ask them to build the system in a certain way, but sometimes they build it the other way around and they have their own reasons for doing it that way. And that’s wonderful.”, Michael explained.
Sharing how the SAM Labs kit also made his life easier, he said “I liked the intuition that was on the software – it’s very user friendly. I can just pair things and it’s going to work. Some of the other equipment we’re using has Bluetooth connectivity too – it works usually, but sometimes there’s a hiccup. I’ve not had that with your pieces – they connect on the first try.”
He added “Overall it’s been a really fun project to be a part of. It’s really cool to see all this equipment working together in a way that I couldn’t have imagined before this project started.”
Looking to the future, Michael and the team at the OSC are keen to replicate the success of this initial project. “Once the grant period is up, we hope to have all the project building plans on the website, and then any hospital who hears about it would be able to get the plans to make their own set of things. That would be really awesome.”
We’d also like to think our work with the OSC may not be over yet. Michael says there’s a chance that SAM Labs equipment could feature in new projects too – as any new equipment that impresses him gets added to his repertoire moving forward. “We have a lot of ideas in our back pocket.” he added.
With the pandemic hitting mid-project, the OSC had to cut its initial plan of three carts down to two, but plans to finish the third cart could be on the horizon.
Thanks for speaking to us Michael, we look forward to discovering what the OSC has in store for 2022!
Rosie is a writer and storyteller with a passion for tech and learning, with nearly a decade’s experience writing for small tech startups and large brands alike. In her free time she enjoys walks with her pet greyhound Boris, singing in a jazz quartet and making new music.