Frizzle the clown clapped her hands and the voice of 20-year-old Regan McLaughlin rose in volume.

"The CAKE GOES IN the oven," she said with a big sweeping gesture, and the audience giggled and laughed.

McLaughlin, a sophomore at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, practiced her improvisational comedy routine while wearing a bright red plastic nose. She is taking part in a two-day workshop to learn how to be a "medical clown."

The workshop — sponsored this weekend by the St. Ambrose occupational therapy and psychology department — is led by experts from the Hearts and Noses Hospital Clown Troupe of Needham, Mass. Quad-City Clown Troupe volunteers helped with the workshop Saturday.

McLaughlin is taking a five-month-long class that teaches this specialized type of clowning. She has just applied to the St. Ambrose occupational therapy program and hopes someday to use what she learns to help children with special needs.

"I think this will be a good way to approach some of the kids," said McLaughlin, noting that she took part in musical theater as a high school student in Waterloo, Iowa.

Frizzle is Joyce Friedman, who is helping to conduct the program with a clown partner, Cheryl "Tic Toc" Lekousi. Both are members of the Hearts and Noses Hospital Clown Troupe.

Friedman is impressed by the students she has met in Davenport. "They find so much joy in the clowning," she said, "and they have a great energy level."

Her clown troupe works at a number of medical facilities in the Boston area, she said, including Boston Medical Center and the Franciscan Hospital for Children.

Medical clowning had its start during the 1980s in New York City. Its participants are different from circus and other types of clowns in that they do not wear face paint or wigs because of the concern about infections in a medical facility.

They work with children as well as older adults in nursing homes and care centers, said Christine Urish, who coordinates the St. Ambrose program along with Carol DeVolder.

Urish, a professor in the occupational therapy program, said medical clowns have to be very respectful of patients. For example, they will not enter a room unless invited to do so.

"This empowers the patients to ask us in and to be involved and engaged," she said.

Medical clowning can help calm fears and ease anxieties. Urish said the St. Ambrose students plan to visit the Children's Therapy Center of the Quad-Cities and the community support program at the Robert Young Center for Community Mental Health.

They also have advocacy assignments, Urish said, to help spread the word about the program, which is new to the Quad-Cities.

Medical clowning is gaining interest around the United States, she said, but it is already an accepted practice in Israel and throughout Europe.

There is not a lot of medical research available in the U.S., she said, but other studies have shown that medical clowning helps to decrease pain in children and to calm dementia patients while making them more engaged with life overall.