New “makerspace” gives teen cancer patients room to invent

Adam Savage

Teen patients at the Bass Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases are joined by Adam Savage in the hospital’s new makerspace.

Silicon Valley is a hub for innovation — it’s not only home to the country’s most cutting-edge tech companies, but on a smaller scale, it is the birthplace of many “makerspaces” — collaborative spaces where inventors, hackers, entrepreneurs, artists and other innovators gather to learn and create. Patients at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford now have access to the first makerspace in a hospital setting, and it’s giving them an opportunity to create solutions to problems that may impact them throughout their treatment.

Adam Savage, former host of Discovery Channel’s “Mythbusters,” recently visited the new space and worked with patients as part of his national “Maker Tour” for In the video, Savage explains:

“The point about this makerspace being inside this ward is specifically that it’s more than about just sick kids being here. These are adolescents who are not able to go out and visit their friends, and they don’t want to spend every day just [being] bored watching television. This is a space where they can come find problems to solve, solve them and be part of the culture of innovation [in] the hospital, itself.”

Known as the Innovation Pop-up Space, the makerspace is located in the Bass Center for Cancer and Blood Diseases. It is part of the hospital’s Stanford Adolescent Young Adult Cancer Program (SAYAC), which is designed specifically for teens, whose unique needs are often not met in traditional health care settings designed for children or adults. The space gives patients access to 3-D printers, electronic building blocks, computers, cameras and other tools they can use to invent and build, and it includes a mobile makerspace cart that can be taken room-to-room within the hospital for patients who aren’t able to leave their rooms easily.

Gokul Krishnan, PhD, a STEM research associate at WestEd and a volunteer at Packard Children’s, is spearheading the implementation of the makerspace as an outlet for “maker therapy.” He hopes that by using the space during hospital stays, patients will have improved response to treatment and overall quality of life.

“The goal of maker therapy is to provide a unique space that will not only stimulate patients’ creativity but also serve as a therapeutic environment for them throughout their treatment,” Krishnan said. “It’s a makerspace, an innovation space, a collaboration space and, above all, a healing space where patients can think about something other than their health and feel like they are part of a community.”

The makerspace is in the early stages of implementation, but it has already produced some impressive inventions. During Savage’s visit, three patients collaborated with him to build a responsive “privacy doorbell” using littleBits technology and Sprout Pro by HP computers. The doorbell attaches to the outside of a patient’s door and can be controlled by patients from their beds, allowing them to communicate with nurses and other visitors using unique commands. “Go away!” or “Come back later!” are just some of the auto-programmed responses that are at patients’ fingertips, and they can be changed depending on how patients are feeling in the moment. The highlight of Savage’s visit was when the group tested the doorbell for the first time and it worked!

Aaron, a Bass Center patient, describes in the video how he helped come up with the idea for the doorbell project:

“I just thought that a doorbell would be nice, especially in the space of a hospital, because when you’re inside a room … people are always coming in and out. I thought it would be great if you could control that a bit more.”

Savage agreed, saying:

“That was seriously a real project. And by real I mean we had an idea — it was Aaron’s idea for a privacy doorbell — it’s a great idea, it answers a need he specifically experienced in this hospital, and then together in this space we came up with a solution. That is the best. That’s what making is all about.”

Pam Simon, MSN, CPNP, CPON, director of the SAYAC program, hopes the hospital’s makerspace will provide an opportunity for teen cancer patients to bond with each other as they collaborate on inventions to improve their experiences with cancer.

“Patients at this age don’t want to create something just for themselves; they want to do something that’s meaningful, and that is what is going to get them out of their rooms and into the makerspace,” Simon explains. “This population wants to make a difference for somebody else. In the case of these patients, it’s their peers, other younger patients and the hospital community as a whole. They struggle with not being able to be involved with their normal activities during treatment, and that’s where I think this comes in. It gives them an opportunity to create things that can make a difference.”

In the coming months, Simon and Krishnan will be piloting the makerspace program at Packard Children’s. They hope to sustain it for years to come and possibly even roll it out to other children’s hospitals around the country. As part of this endeavor, they will be conducting research to more closely understand the impact that the innovative space can have on patients. The research will have a threefold approach:

  • Health – working to understand ways the space might help improve patients’ overall health, including cognitive function, social function and overall recovery time
  • Adaptation – identifying effective ways to train hospital staff and patients to operate the makerspaces on an ongoing basis, as well as finding ways to adapt the space for future patients with a variety of ages, conditions and illnesses
  • Learning – using the makerspace as a tool to foster patients’ critical thinking skills and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and help keep them from falling behind in school when they are hospitalized for long periods of time

Although the makerspace is still in its early stages, the response from patients has been positive so far. “They’ve absolutely loved it,” Simon said. “Some of our patients who have moved from inpatient to outpatient are even continuing to create at home.”

For Krishnan, that’s what maker therapy is all about. As a hospital located in Silicon Valley, surrounded by the world’s top tech companies, he explains, “we’re setting these patients up to be part of the next big culture of innovation in health care. They’re on the front lines receiving medical treatment. Why can’t they be the next big innovators and entrepreneurs?”

The Stanford Adolescent Young Adult Cancer Program (SAYAC) Innovation Pop-up Space is made possible by the hospital’s adolescent and young adult (AYA) patients, volunteers and donations from HP, littleBits, MakerBot and more.


2 Responses to “New “makerspace” gives teen cancer patients room to invent”

  1. Ajay

    Dear Ms. DeTrempe,

    I am a Junior at Mountain View High School and heard about the popup Maker Space from an acquaintance. I came across this article while browsing the Stanford website searching for more information on this space. Would it be possible to connect with the person in charge of running/maintaining the space? I would be very interested in seeing if they could use some help with the Maker Space on an ongoing basis to create curriculum, how-to videos, and/or simply help with the hands-on activities, etc.

    I have been working on creating and building things for as long as I can remember, and I would love to be able to share my passion with others.

    Thank you for your time!
    Ajay Sunkara

    • JulJenkins

      Hi Ajay,

      Thank you for reaching out to us, and for expressing interest in our makerspace. Please feel free to reach out to Gokul Krishnan by emailing him at All the very best to you!


Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)