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Video: ISU math robots help cancer clinic kids

Michala Schauble never really liked math. Hated it, actually, according to her mom.

One day last fall, as boredom set in during a month-long hospital stay for chemotherapy, Schauble got an unexpected visit from Illinois State mathematics education Ph.D. student Megan Nickels. She asked if Schauble wanted to build some high-tech Lego robots, using math concepts.

Both dog lovers, they started by building a “puppy” robot. Almost a year later, Schauble is hooked, working with Nickels on new robots most Fridays when she gets maintenance chemo treatments at St. Jude Midwest Affiliate Clinic, located at Children’s Hospital of Illinois in Peoria.

“The first time we did it, I had a blast,” Schauble said. “It’s very fun, being able to work with her and coming to the clinic knowing you’re going to get chemo but having something fun to look forward to, to get your mind off it.”

Schauble was diagnosed in 2009 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She’s home-schooled now, but like many young cancer patients her diagnosis has disrupted her education.

Megan works with Matthew

Illinois State Ph.D. student Megan Nickels works with Matthew, a patient at St. Jude Midwest Affiliate Clinic in Peoria, on Friday, July 25, 2014.

Nickels noticed the need for help when she started volunteering at Children’s Hospital of Illinois. The former elementary schoolteacher had begun work on her Ph.D. at Illinois State, but she started volunteering because she missed being around kids. Soon her research took on a new direction.

“It became really clear that there was a big need for them to have an exposure to meaningful mathematics,” said Nickels.

Nickels wants to know how children with cancer and other chronic illness can learn math through educational robotics, and how that affects not just learning, but their physiological well-being too. She’s been working with kids at Children’s Hospital of Illinois and St. Jude ever since.

Schauble, now 15, was one of her first students.

“Working with the robots, you get to be more hands-on and actually understand and get a feel for what you’re doing, instead of just seeing numbers written on a piece of paper,” Michala said.

Michala’s mother, Carol Schauble, said her daughter’s improvement in math has been remarkable. Michala wants to be a veterinarian, and she knows math will be an important part of the job.

“I’ve seen so much mathematical growth in her, and growth in her confidence,” Nickels said.

Nickels received grant funding to buy her robotics kits, including a Dissertation Completion Grant from Illinois State. After finishing her Ph.D. next summer, she hopes to land a position at a research institution similar to Illinois State, where she can continue to prepare pre-service teachers and pursue her research.

Ryan Denham can be reached at