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When patients arrive at a hospital with a complicated disease, they get a personalized treatment regimen designed to attack their specific illness.

At Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, medicine isn’t the only thing that’s personalized.

PedsAcademy launched there last November, offering personalized learning opportunities for each patient, tailored to their existing academic needs and the ones they may develop because of their medical conditions.

Ella Greene, 9, has a type of bone cancer called Ewing sarcoma. Patients with this diagnosis tend to have trouble paying attention and staying on task, thanks to the effects of their chemotherapy and, in some cases, radiation. It can take longer for them to process new information. And they might develop muscle weakness and fatigue.

PedsAcademy founder Megan Nickels, an assistant professor of STEM education at the University of Central Florida, took all of this into account when designing a learning plan for Ella. Nickels also considered that Ella said she struggled with math, that she particularly likes sea life and that she’s completely in love with her dog, River.

Ella first got her diagnosis on Jan. 5, 2018. Over the course of the year, she returned to the hospital again and again for two or three days at a time, sometimes longer. For the last few months, at least, she has been able to look forward to PedsAcademy lessons even if she dreaded her chemotherapy.

In general, Ella describes school as boring. But PedsAcademy, she said, is different.

“You really don’t feel like you’re doing school,” Ella said. “You’re actually doing the most fun thing you’ve ever done.”

Ella took virtual reality field trips to watch sea turtles under water, explore the pyramids in Egypt, see the Great Barrier Reef and traverse the Grand Canyon. She started building a robotic version of her dog, which she will eventually program to bark and run.

Every lesson, designed to excite and engage Ella, includes activities meant to catch her up on the math topics she finds most challenging and avoid the physical risks that come with her disease. When she “swam” with sea turtles, the breast stroke she did from her hospital bed worked her muscles. And what seemed like a fun underwater jaunt was actually a math lesson in disguise: Nickels told Ella the dimensions of a piece of a sunken ship and asked Ella to estimate the size of other things underwater.

“You really don’t feel like you’re doing school. You’re actually doing the most fun thing you’ve ever done.”

Building her robot requires engineering skills, and programming it will force Ella to learn to code. If Ella wants her robotic dog to run a race, she’ll have to master a number of mathematical concepts first.

“It very much seems like play to her, but it’s really a targeted intervention with robotics,” Nickels said. “She’s doing visual/spatial exercises, motor/perceptual tasks. All of it she’s doing very naturally because the build demands it, but she’s loving it.”

When kids have extended hospital stays, they get worksheets and assignments to keep up with school, but the reality is, many fall behind. That’s one thing Ella’s mom worried about when her daughter started treatments. PedsAcademy supplements the schoolwork children already get. The virtual reality and robotics lessons don’t translate to actual credits the kids can take back to their home schools, but they get kids excited about learning. And Aleshia Greene, Ella’s mom, said she appreciated the intellectual stimulation as a positive way to fill Ella’s long days in the hospital.

Every child who is admitted to Nemours gets a visit on their first day from the PedsAcademy team, made up of faculty and students from the University of Central Florida who work alongside doctors and nurses in the hospital. Patients get up to three hours of PedsAcademy lessons each day and if their siblings are spending days in the hospital with them, they get activities of their own.

PedsAcademy is believed to be the only one of its kind, but since it launched in November, children’s hospitals around the country have taken note. Most children’s hospitals are affiliated with universities, and since many universities have schools of education, the ingredients for replicating the model are there. Terri Finkel, the chair of pediatrics at Nemours and faculty sponsor for PedsAcademy, said that’s one goal – to help the program spread.

Everyone wants more children to have the types of experiences Ella has had these last few months. Her transformation in math has been particularly notable. She entered the hospital disliking the subject and feeling bad about her skill level in multiplication, specifically.

“But now I’m really good at it,” Ella said. “And it’s fun to do.”

For a child to get a cancer diagnosis, miss more than a year of school and end up with a stronger grasp of a previously despised subject – it’s safe to chalk that up as a win.

This story about personalized learning was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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