Are we having PhUn yet? The value of outreach in science and education

The bad news first….


Figure of estimated annual test score gains around the world. The US is in black. Figure from EducationNext.

The United States lags behind other countries in K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.   Even the U.S. rate of progress to improve science and math achievement is bested by 24 countries including Latvia, Chile and Brazil, who have the highest growth rates.

The public perception of science is declining.  From 1999 to 2009 the public perception that science and technology are the greatest achievements of the U.S. fell from 47% to 27%.  In addition, only 17% of those surveyed thought U.S. scientific achievement is the best in the world.  When scientists were polled, 85% felt that the public’s lack of understanding of science was a significant problem, and 49% believed that the public has an unrealistic expectation about the speed at which scientific advancements are made.

Federal support for research and development is decreasing.  U.S. federal expenditures on research and development is expected to decrease by 6.5% in fiscal year 2013, and federal spending on research as a percent of GDP will fall to 0.8%, a 40 year low. This is ominous data given that science and technology are required to solve many of the problems facing our country now and in the future. Not to mention the overwhelming evidence that investment in scientific research is a proven economic engine.

Now the good news…it’s time to have some PhUn!

The statements above paint a gloomy picture about the direction of science education and funding. They also raise the question (at least in my mind) of what we, as scientists and teachers, can do to reverse these trends. Is it sufficient for scientists to simply hunker down, spend more time in the lab, submit more grants, and be satisfied with the notion that the public just doesn’t get it, or that it is the problem of teachers to fix STEM education? Are K-12 educators to just sit back and hope that updated content and innovative lesson plans materialize out of thin air?  If these options are not sufficient (they aren’t), then what other choices do we have?  Scientific outreach may be the key, or at least an important part of the solution.

The purpose of scientific outreach is to enhance public awareness and understanding of science.  Outreach does not have to be a daunting, all-consuming task.
From the perspective of a scientist, it can be achieved by making a visit to a classroom, talking with your institute’s public affairs office about an important research finding, or writing a letter to your local representatives. K-12 educators can facilitate this process by being familiar with the ongoing work of local colleges and universities, inviting scientists to the classroom, or even getting involved in summer research projects.  What if you’ve never participated in science outreach before?  It is conceivable, maybe even likely, that this is not in the comfort zone of many scientists. In addition, teachers may not know where to find research opportunities that could benefit their classrooms, or feel comfortable contacting local scientists.  Thankfully, professional organizations like the American Physiological Society (APS) can help.  APS has great resources for physiologists on how to conduct advocacy and K-12 education outreach.


Students learning about the PhUn of heart-healthy exercise. Image from

Among the K-12 outreach activities offered by APS, Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week is the widest reaching event having taken place annually in the first week of November since 2005. The goal of PhUn Week is to foster interaction between scientists and local schools and now reaches 12000 students annually.  I have been fortunate to be involved with PhUn Week over the last several years and have organized small and large PhUn Week events.  Typically, I bring a team of scientists to a local elementary or middle school where we set up interactive, hands-on stations for the kids.  An example of a station that we might include is to build your own glomerulus (the filtering unit of the kidney).  We spend a few minutes talking about the purpose of the glomerulus and its basic anatomy.  Then, students are presented with a series of different materials from which they can use their knowledge of glomerular function and anatomy to build their own model.  When students are finished building their models, we test them to see how good they filter the “blood”.  You can view this and other activities in this Archive Collection.

The example of PhUn Week illustrates how outreach can foster collaboration between scientists and K-12 educators promote educational resource development to enhance scientific achievement, and improve the public perception of science.  Ultimately, these outreach opportunities will help reinforce the pipeline of the future scientists who will be solving the medical and technological problems of the future. For scientists who are hesitant to interact with the public, don’t underestimate the power that improved public perception of science and scientific literacy has to influence the budget priorities of the federal government.   So let’s get out there and have some PhUn!

12 thoughts on “Are we having PhUn yet? The value of outreach in science and education”


Great comment on a fantastic program. Thanks for all you have and continue to do to make this an outstanding learning and outreach resource for faculty, postdocs, grad and undergrad students and of course K-12 teachers, students and their families.

Mike Wyss

PhUn week is a MUST DO event every fall. For the past four years I have gone into the local elementary school and taught an experiment on the effects of exercise on the cardiovascular system to 4th graders. The students create their hypothesis, perform the experiment, collect data, analyze data, draw conclusions and complete a lab report. The positive feedback I get from the students is overwhelming. PhUn week also is right before Parent-Teacher conferences. The teachers I work with tell me the parents rave about the positive and PhUn experience their children have had. We are all busy but we need to make time to bring the scientists to the students so they can experience science first hand.  For more information go to Come join the PhUn!!!
Patricia A. Halpin

I have been doing outreach to our school district and across the state to teachers and students for > 25 years.  PhUn Week is my annual outreach to all of the 7th graders in Vermillion Middle School but I have also been doing a spring event using Kidney Under Pressure.  For PhUn Week, we have the students hypothesize the effects of three different kinds on exercise on heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature and then do the experiment in class.  The skin temperature one is great because in almost all cases skin temperature goes down with exercise due to homeostasis.

I was at a AAAS K-12 education conference a number of years ago and learned about a scientist-in-residence program with a local school district.  I came back and got the superintendent to appoint me the scientist-in-residence.  I am available to visit classrooms, find resources for science activities, find other scientists, have the students visit the university, etc.  That has led to some great opportunities to teach first and second grade science using the Full-Option-Science System kits that are owned by our School of Education.

Thanks for your comments.  I would love to hear from others about their experiences with PhUn week or other K-12 science outreach.  This would be a great forum to share your ideas about activities you can do in the classroom as well.

I have had the opportunity to “follow” my children through elementary school with PhUn week.  Most of the kids in their school know me by now and whenever they see me they run up and ask when I will be back into the class to run another experiment.  The enthusiasm with which they bring to the experiments is refreshing and rewarding.  Thank you to the APS for the continued support of this program and thank you to Mike for high lighting its importance.

We have run experiments on heart rate, lung capacity, germ transmission, and exercise.  I am always looking for new ideas and will be happy to share any of the materials I have to others that want to get involved.  The return on your time investment is more than worth it!

Mike, this is a great post on the importance and “PhUN” of outreach to K-12 students.  I’ve hosted PhUN week events in my son’s K-2 classes as well as in a local science magnet school (5th grade), and the responses have been amazing.  The students are so excited about doing experiments and meeting real scientists, the teachers love the parent / community involvement, and even the parents have enjoyed hearing about the activities and seeing the gifts from APS.   We have done simple, quick activities such as making a stethoscope out of a paper towel tube to listen to each others hearts (kindergarten – 1st grade) and making lung-o-meters for the students (2nd – 5th grade) to measure their lung capacity (all activities were found in the APS archive).


I really appreciate the blog.  Several our our labs have been participating in PhUN week for years.  There are several amazing aspects to this program from what I can see. First, it gives value and credibility to us as physiologists. Being able to get out into the community that appreciates what we do is extremely rewarding.  Students and fellows in the lab are eager to participate. There is no arm twisting at all.  When the box arrives from APS with the materials, there is lots of excitement and enthusiasm around the lab.  One of the other aspects that I truly appreciate is that the students and trainees do not have to be reminded to participate each year.  They have jumped in full force and love taking on this as a leadership opportunity.  APS does a lot of great things. This is certainly one near the top of the list.

David Pollock

President-Elect, American Physiological Society

Physiology is PhUn and it is through the efforts of Mike Ryan and other APS members that we are able to demonstrate to young people how much fun physiology can be.  The goal is to help them to become scientifically literate, to appreciate how their bodies work and to become advocates for science in the future.  Thank you to all who go into the classroom during PhUn Week and make a difference.


Martin Frank, APS Executive Director

Great blog, Mike.  I have been involved in PhUn Week activities for several years now.  The students (and the teachers) are so appreciative of the opportunity to do hands-on physiology experiments.  They also enjoy hearing from “the experts,” so it is easy to keep doing this every year.  I have gone back to the same high school in Jackson MI several times now to help the students learn about factors (caffeine, exercise) that affect your blood pressure and heart rate.  The teacher uses the K-W-L (know-wonder-learn) teaching method.  I am always amazed at the great questions (wonder) the students ask in advance of our visit, and their feedback with what they learned makes this a really rewarding experience.  I also participated in a PhUn Week event at our local children’s museum in Lansing.  The little kids (and their parents and grandparents) had so much fun they stayed so long that the museum parking lot was filled.  Records show we reached over 500 kids that day.  Hopefully we inspired at least one of them to become a physiologist in the future.

Sue Barman, Past-President APS

Mike – thanks for this thoughtful and sobering assessment of the state of preparation for STEM careers in the US, as well as highlighting the Society’s efforts in rectifying these issues via our annual PhUN week.  As APS President, I worry about where the next generation of physiology researchers will come from.  It’s clear that we need to engage young minds as early as possible to imbue them with the excitement and PhUN of our discipline.  We certainly cannot sit back and expect to maintain our competitive position as a nation, especially when rapidly growing countries, such as Brazil, are making impressive investments in scientific infrastructure and workforce development.  Thanks for spotlighting one of our flagship programs and its growing importance.


Kim E. Barrett

President, American Physiological Society

Hello Everyone, I have been doing PhUn week in fourth grade for the past four years. Today I went into the second grade. I made some obvious adjustments to the experiment we did. I simplified the explanations and shortened the duration of the experiment. One factor I did not adjust for was I had to add 15 min for snack!  It was a great morning and we did have a lot of PhUn.


great introduction to the opportunities available in using the Phun week format

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