Are you a kid person? I am a self-proclaimed kid person, but I haven’t always felt that way. Kids are amazing sponges…seeking knowledge, attention and guidance, but they are also loud, challenging, sometimes germy, balls of energy.
I started out being a non-kid person when I was a kid myself. I primarily surrounded myself with adults, not always by choice, but certainly a circumstantial hazard of being an only child who moved frequently (13 times in 11 years). While I was encouraged to invite friends over and did, I preferred one-on-one time to massive playground free-for-alls. After settling in one place, and becoming a sullen teenager, kids weren’t really an issue, as I lacked siblings and fervently avoided friends’ sticky-handed brothers and sisters who insisted on following us around. By college it was official; I was absolutely not having any kids of my own. I barreled down my educational path determined to achieve great feats by extremely young milestones. So far, so good…
Do you remember the game of life…roll the dice, move your car, and then suddenly you are going to the chapel and your peg (pink in my case) is joined by another peg (blue in this story) and then more pegs…Eek! Now is the time to swerve to the side of the road and reevaluate where I went off course, or did I?
Let’s do a quick self-assessment:
PhD earned –
Found a nice boy and visited the chapel –
Postdoc acquired –
New pink peg in the backseat –
WHAT?!?! Where did the path diverge? At what point along the way did miniature pink pegs enter the picture? Where did my comfort zone go?
Okay deep breaths…
I can do this. I like adventures. I can do this!
“I can do this” became my daily mantra and guess what…I discovered that I could do this. Not only could I do it, against all odds, I liked it. I was a kid person, well at least a kid person where my kid was concerned.
I still had reservations about other children. After all, they weren’t mine. I tolerated them, went to playdates, talked about “mom things” with acquaintances, but I didn’t really understand. I marveled at mothers who had more than one child, questioned the sanity of those who regularly hosted sleepovers, and stood in awe of preschool teachers who welcomed our offspring into their classrooms every day.
And then one day it happened…
A trusted colleague and friend suggested that we should participate in PhUn week. What is that I asked? I hadn’t even heard of PhUn week, much less knew what it entailed. When I discovered that I could design an activity to teach students physiology I signed up immediately because creating a new physiology demonstration was, after all, fun and exciting. And who wouldn’t love PHYSIOLOGY for kids?!?!
The day arrived and although I had prepared meticulously for my portion of the event, nervousness overtook me. Suddenly it was my turn to speak and the 50 pairs of fifth-grade eyes staring at me seemed to bore into my brain asking me, “Do you like teaching us? What are we going to do? What if we all decide not to raise our hands?” I drew in one more deep breath…
“Who knows how oxygen travels through your body?”
Several hands shot into the air and I knew I was going to be okay. My first participation in PhUn week was a huge success. The students enjoyed it, learned a lot about oxygen transport, we shared our day with colleagues during the PhUn week poster session at EB and published our poster in the LifeSciTRC.
I was hooked! I began planning the next PhUn week activity just a few, short months after my first event. This time we would include elementary students and preschoolers. I decided to invite 60 fourth grade students to the medical school for a full day of events covering multiple organ systems and branching into other disciplines such as art. An event at my daughter’s preschool was also on the agenda, teaching 3 and 4-year-olds to listen to heartbeats. But wait…I don’t like kids…at least I didn’t like them…hmmmm, maybe they were growing on me.
With each new event, it became clearer that I was becoming a kid person and kids were now well within my comfort zone. I no longer felt annoyed with all of the questions; I welcomed the opportunity to share science and relished each hug from appreciative students. I began hanging crayon-covered thank you cards up in my office, next to research awards and physiology textbooks. I smiled each time a child stopped me in the hall to tell me about a “more often” food choice they had made instead of a “less often” food choice (one of our lessons included guidance on choosing fruits and vegetables and other healthy choices more often than candy, chips, and coke). I soon found myself looking for outreach opportunities outside of PhUn week and volunteering to teach others about organizing and carrying out community involvement events. I beamed with pride when I realized that 2017 was my seventh year to participate in PhUn week. Kids no longer frightened me; in fact they excited me, particularly when I shared science with them. I had truly become a kid person.
In September, I asked my daughter, now a third grader (NRTP), if she wanted me to come to her classroom again and lead a PhUn week activity.
“Of course,” she said without hesitation. The conversation that followed went something like this…
Me: “What system should we do this year? I realize that you are probably tired of the cardiovascular system.” (Please note that this is the primary system in which I trained and of course my favorite, hence the subjugation of my daughter to it year after year.)
Me: “Excuse me, poop is not a system.”
Me: “You want to study the GI system?”
NRTP: “Yes, as long as we make poop!”
Oh no! What had I gotten myself into? Digestion, stomach acid, liver enzymes, bile, and of course, poop…no thank you! Have I mentioned that the GI system is my least favorite? Here comes another adventure far outside the comfort zone. Following many hours of plotting and planning, diligent searching in the LifeSciTRC, and a couple of phone calls to a colleague (big sigh), it was settled, a plan emerged and GI physiology was on the horizon. I would lead a three-part session complete with an experiment, a video and a demonstration. We would even make “poop;” well, digested cracker, but it was close enough.
The day arrived and first PhUn week jitters resurfaced. I didn’t know this classroom, these children, or this system, but I stood determinedly in front of the room. I was pleasantly surprised at the students’ description of a scientist, intrigued by their questions, and excited to share physiology with them. The GI system was suddenly thrown into an entirely different light. Once again kids demonstrated to me that life is better when shared with them. How else could my least favorite physiological system suddenly seem so amazing?
As I reflect on engagement in outreach opportunities throughout my career, I appreciate that outreach not only opened my eyes to personal change, but also professional paths. After carving a few notches in my PhUn week belt, I was named outreach coordinator for the medical school where I was faculty, given an operational budget for my activities and asked to serve as founding director of a health careers camp for inner city kids. Professionally, becoming a kid person partially shaped my career and led to new forms of career development. Teaching science to elementary age students encouraged me to rethink my examples and explanations in the medical physiology classroom. It also spurred me to engage the students through more media and hands-on activities, ultimately leading to greater student success with understanding the most challenging physiological concepts.
So, what does it all mean?
- Change is inevitable.
- Change can be life-altering, but even when it isn’t, it’s a learning experience.
- Any change can be an adventure if you are willing and open to the possibilities.
- Change can start as personal and end as professional and vice versa.
- In many cases the teacher is actually the student.
- Sometimes the unwanted, or seemingly unwanted, adventures are the greatest.
So, I challenge you…go on an adventure, step outside your comfort zone and choose the divergent path because you never know where it might lead.
||Jessica C Taylor, PhD is the Senior Manager for Higher Education Programs at the American Physiological Society. She is a former professional, graduate and undergraduate classroom educator. Jessica participates in many forms of outreach including PhUn week and outreach writing through the I Spy Physiology blog. She is also the proud parent of an aspiring astrophysicist veterinarian pink peg with whom she dances in the living room, climbs playground equipment, and of course talks science. She credits her pink peg, her faculty mentor and closest physiology colleagues with showing her the benefits of being a kid person.