School’s in session at the hospital

English, math and even science experiments help school-aged patients keep up

Kathy Ho teaching at Stanford Hospital School

High school science experiments often have elements of danger: Students heat chemicals over Bunsen burners, wrangle fragile glassware, wield scalpels during dissections and try to “always add acid” to water (instead of the other way around) to avoid hazardous splashes.

But the hands-on part of the science curriculum is hard to teach in a hospital, where many dangerous materials, such as open flames and lab animals, are not allowed.

As a result, Kathy Ho, a longtime high school teacher at the hospital school at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, used to struggle to offer experiments to her students. Ho is part of the hospital’s team of four teachers who run the K-12 hospital school, a part of the Palo Alto Unified School District, and work with several hundred hospitalized children a year.

At Packard Children’s, some patients stay for just a few days, but the majority stay for a month or more. Ho and her colleagues help all of these pupils keep up with their studies.

“Providing the opportunity for our students to stay on par with their peers at home means giving them hope that things are going to be normal again,” Ho said.

In 2008, to address the science-lab challenge, Ho tapped a local resource: Stanford scientist Andrew Spakowitz, PhD, associate professor of chemical engineering and of materials science and engineering. Ever since, Spakowitz has recruited Stanford undergraduate and graduate students to design biology, chemistry, physics and engineering experiments that fit California curriculum standards.

“The Stanford students come up with clever ways to develop new labs suitable for the hospital environment,” Spakowitz said, noting they’ve created more than 30 lab activities using cheap, safe, easily available materials.

To get around the restriction on bringing lab animals into the hospital, one biology lab employs Stanford students as guinea pigs: While the Stanford students jog in place, the hospital students measure such variables as heart rate and breath volume. In an engineering assignment, kids evaluate the good and bad features of hospital gowns. In an optics lab, students point inexpensive hand-held lasers through Jell-O to see how the material bends light.

The labs get rave reviews from the pupils. “Science gets kids excited and engaged,” Ho said. “They can forget for a while that they’re in the hospital.”

Meeting kids’ needs

When school-aged patients arrive at the hospital, the teachers assess their needs. As long as they’re well enough to do some schoolwork, pupils in kindergarten through fifth grade receive instruction in English, language arts and math. For older students, the teachers coordinate with a counselor at their usual school to determine if the student can work on assignments while they are away.

The hospital school also provides extracurricular activities, including in art and drama. And any student who has attended classes at the hospital during the school year is invited to the spring prom, an evening of fun, games, food and dancing.

Besides working together on school activities, students also bond over their medical experiences.

“They may not have the same diagnoses, but they help each other talk through things,” Ho said. “A kid who has had a heart transplant maybe empathizes with a kid with cancer.”

Older students also mentor the younger ones, with high schoolers sometimes befriending kindergarteners. “It’s so fun to watch,” Ho said. “We’re lucky that we can provide all of these children with a dynamic, really vibrant school environment.”

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Erin Digitale

Erin Digitale is the pediatrics senior science writer in the Office of Communications. Email her at

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