Monthly Archives: December 2017

Fastballs, houses, and ECG’s

As adults of ever increasing age, I am sure almost every one of you has had a conversation lamenting your loss of physical abilities over the years. “I used to be able to do that.” “I used to be good at that.” As a parent to two young, energetic, fearless boys I hear (and think) these sentiments almost daily. While watching children play on a playground, sprinting for hours, hanging upside down, contorting their bodies into nearly impossible positions, jumping (and falling), twisting and turning, and literally bouncing off walls, parent conversations almost always include incredulous statements about children’s’ physical capacity followed immediately by a statement of the parents’ lack thereof. More than once I’ve heard a parent say, “If I did that, I’d be in the hospital.”

But have you ever actually thought, “Why can’t I do that anymore?” The answer isn’t just “I’m too old”. Obviously the physiologic changes of age are undeniable, but it’s a more complicated reason. At some point in your life, you stopped playing like children play. You stopped running and jumping and twisting and turning. You move in straight lines. You sit for hours. You don’t try that new move. It looks too hard. You might hurt yourself. As physiologists, we all know about homeostasis and adaptations, and it’s no surprise that our lifestyles have contributed to our physical inability in adulthood. Of course you would hurt yourself if you tried ‘that’, but only because you haven’t tried anything like that in years. Start trying ‘that’ though, and over time you’ll find yourself much more physically capable despite the aging process.

This childhood to adulthood performance decrement is not exclusive to physical capacity though. We are doing much the same to our mental capacity with age. A child will take physical risks on the playground, much as they also take mental “risks” in the classroom. Ask a group of 3rd graders a question, any question, almost all of them raise their hand hoping to answer…even if they don’t know the answer. And the student who got it wrong, will raise his hand again after the next question. Give them a challenge or a mystery to solve and they will dive right in. Let them touch and feel and manipulate. They don’t hesitate. They are on their mental playground. This is how they learn. As adults though, we aren’t going to the mental playground, because that’s not what adults do. We sit in chairs. We watch lectures. We make notecards. We read papers. We study the learning objectives and the PowerPoints.

Just as adults could physically benefit from some time on the playground every day, adults (and I’m including college students in this category) can also benefit from time on a mental playground. Even as educators of other adults, we need to remember this. We often forget the multitude of ways that we can put our students on the mental playground. We don’t do an activity, because the students might think it’s ridiculous. It might waste too much time, and there is too much material to cover today. I have found in my classrooms though, that activities that would work with kindergarteners can work equally well for college students.

To give examples of ways to put college students on the mental playground, I would like to share two activities that I have done in a physiologic assessment of health course that have been very effective. The course consists of juniors and seniors who have already taken several biology, chemistry, and physiology courses beyond anatomy and physiology. The first assignment that I give them is to work with a partner to draw a picture of a person with as many health risk factors as they can think of. I have found that most students who take this class (instructor included) are horrible artists, but this adds to the fun of the assignment. The students love it and come up with thousands of creative ways to represent health risk factors. We have a discussion over which drawings have incorporated the most “official” risk factors (as designated by national organizations like ACSM, AHA, etc.) and why some of the others are certainly not healthy (setting off fireworks indoors), but not listed as official risk factors.  Something about taking the time to draw silly pictures on a specific topic really aids in student understanding (anecdotally in my class, but evidence exists that this is effective (Ainsworth S, Prain V, Tytler R. Drawing to Learn in Science. Science. 333 (6046),1096-1097, 2011.).

Another assignment I’ve had good results with to get students onto the mental playground is half mystery for the students to solve and half drawing pictures. I tell the class that we are going to learn about how the heart works and talk about the electrocardiogram. The first thing I ask them to do is to get out of a sheet of paper and to draw a picture of the house they grew up in as if they were looking at it from the road. Normally confusion ensues and the students want to know if it’s for a grade (yes), and why they’re doing it (trust me, it’ll make sense later). After giving the students time to sketch their house, I ask permission to show each to the class, and then ask the question to the class. “Whose house is bigger?” Ultimately the students come to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to tell without knowing the perspective and distance from the artist and the other views of the house (the front view is only one of multiple views that would be needed to construct the 3-dimensional size of the house). Then, still without talking about the heart, I ask them to draw a picture of a baseball (just the baseball) being thrown. Once again I show the drawings to the class. All usually agree that everyone probably knows the approximate size of a baseball, but then I highlight how different people drew different sizes on the paper. Once again I discuss perspective and how large a baseball looks when it’s about to hit you in the face, because it takes up your entire field of vision, but if it were thrown at you, it would look smaller relative to your field of vision at the start. If you’re watching people playing catch equidistant from both, the ball might move back and forth without appearing to change size relative to the visual field. But all the baseballs are still the same size!

Finally, after the house and baseball drawings I ask, “what did all of that have to do with the heart and electrocardiograms?” After a few minutes, most students understand the theory behind the electrocardiogram without ever having analyzed one. I’ve even had a strong student who was finishing her clinical exercise testing degree that semester say that even though she had taken several courses on ECG analysis and knew how to read them to get good grades on ECG tests, this was the first time she truly “got it.”

Thousands of other ways to engage students on the mental playground are out there as well. Discussing muscle physiology? Hand out rubber bands before class starts and ask them to think about how muscles and rubber bands are remarkably similar yet not the same at all. Teaching about bones? Pass out a few models to let them hold and manipulate. Then ask the students to pretend they’re cavemen and they need to build all of their tools out of bones, which bones would make a good hammer? A good bowl? Spoon? Fork? Weapon? Teaching about brain physiology? Have the students invoke thoughts, memories, feelings or movements and then tell them which part of the brain is responsible. Be creative and remember that just like our bodies, our minds work best when they’re stretched and twisted and used in different ways on a regular basis.

I do not know enough about educational psychology to understand the underlying mechanisms by which these types of activities work (my PhD is in Kinesiology after all – a content expert told to teach well!).  And admittedly most of my evidence that they work is anecdotal or comes by way of gradually improved student scores on final exam and practical questions related to my course objectives over several semesters in which I certainly adjusted more than one variable. However, I do know that in learning, students attend to touch and feel, emotion, and mystery. The same thing you’ll witness at an elementary school playground. Incorporating these into your lessons, even in the simplest of ways can be beneficial for all different types of learners. I’m asking you to turn your classrooms into intellectual playgrounds. Encourage risk taking. Validate atypical approaches. Make it fun. Make it engaging. All the memorized note cards might be forgotten by next semester if it’s not.

   Ed Merritt is an assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Ed received his doctorate in Kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cellular and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Ed was a faculty member at Appalachian State University until family ties brought him back to central Texas and Southwestern University. Ed’s research focuses on the molecular underpinnings of skeletal muscle atrophy after trauma and with aging, but he is also equally involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and melding educational outreach activities with service learning.
When words have lost their meaning!

As a start, ponder what you think that title means!

File that thought away for a minute, we will come back to it. For many years now, I have been considering this topic.  As educators, our whole life is spent as conversants in many different situations.  We converse with each other, either one on one, or with small groups or large groups in classes.  Words are how we convey the context of our lectures, instructions, research, or simple daily conversations.  The meaning of each word is important to the conveyed meaning of our intended outcomes. We write texts to support our teaching.  We write articles to publicize our research findings.  We generate a tremendous volume of recorded, typed and spoken communications using words to convey the exact meaning of what we want to say.  The intent of many of these communications is to deliver a very specific meaning to the person or persons who are the intended target of our words.

Let that last statement sink in a minute………….

Now think back to the question I asked earlier about the title of this blog.  What did you think I meant?  Was your first thought a little confusing, trying to think of a word that no longer has any meaning whatsoever. If so, you have just demonstrated my point.  You, as the recipient of my words, took the meaning of my words literally.  However, my intent was to propose and describe words that have so many meanings that the mere use of the word in a conversation introduces significant misunderstandings between the conversants. Even to the point that when the conversation is over both parties are sure they know what was being said by the other participant(s), yet in reality neither party is aware of the actual meaning intended by the other conversant. The intended meaning of the message was not received with the same meaning by the other participant in the conversation.  I first noticed this when discussing curriculum design with colleagues at national meetings.  Over the past 10 years, this has become increasingly apparent to me when discussing the development of “integrated curricula”.  The use of the term “integration” in many conversations has generated my current perspective. 

What does “integration” mean?   Google definition… “The action or process of integrating” which means to combine one thing with another so that they become whole.

In the world of educators, this could be integration between two instructors, between two classes or disciplines, between clinical and basic science curricula or many other combinations.  Many conversations that I have had over the years have led to misunderstandings of meaning to the point of stopping the conversation and having a discussion as to the meaning of the word integration for each person involved.  In the process of curriculum design, a tremendous amount of time is spent trying to force “integration” by teaming faculty together in a single classroom at one time.  Sometimes this works, other times it does not.  I have come to realize that “true integration” must occur in the recipients mind regardless of modality of the delivery.  In summary, for educators this means that as always, integration is an achievement in the mind of the student that comes from the student’s dedication and hard work regardless of the number of faculty involved or the effort expended by their teachers.  I challenge each of you as educators to think about this and try to help me define other words that fall in the same category as “integration” and respond with other words that may similarly have too many meanings to the point that they “have lost their meaning”…

I will start with these: active learning, clinical relevance…

David Osborne has 26 years of teaching and research experience.  He is a whole animal Physiologist, with a research interest in Gastrointestinal Physiology.  He is a member of IAMSE and the American Physiological Society (APS) with primary affiliations with the Teaching Section and the Gastrointestinal Section.  He is a founding member of APPEL (Affiliation of Professional Physiology Education Leaders), which is an organized group of Physiology course directors dedicated to the preparation of students for professional service such as medicine and dentistry. He has taught Physiology, Biochemistry and Histology in undergraduate, graduate and medical school environments.  He joined Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine (BCOM) as Professor of Physiology and Chair of the Department of Physiology and Pathology, after being a founding member of the faculty that developed the El Paso campus of Texas Tech Health Sciences Center (Paul L Foster School of Medicine, PLFSOM) into a freestanding four-year medical school. He was instrumental in developing the physiology curriculum and driving the integration of basic science disciplines with clinical application.  He is currently the Assistant Dean for Curriculum at BCOM.  His research focus is two-fold. The focus of his scientific research has been to investigate the factors that influence the normal growth of the intestinal epithelial cell lining. His research has applications related to understanding Colon Cancer and in pursuing the successful use of intestinal transplants following removal of the intestines.  His other focus is in education research where he has been investigating methods to deliver complex scientific concepts to naive and experienced students in a more effective manner. Most recently, he has been investigating the use of the “Flipped Classroom” in application to medical education.