Hints for a Successful PhUn Week Event

Having been a part of PhUn Week in some way for the past 8 years, I know that the APS Education Office makes it nearly impossible for PhUn Week not to be successful. With all the resources they offer scientists, teachers, and students, anyone hoping to start their own PhUn Week program should have no problems. However, I have found some ways to make the experience even easier to implement from a logistics standpoint, and in so doing, have found that it’s even more educational, not only for the K-12 students, but also the volunteers.

For the first few years I was involved in PhUn Week, I was a postdoctoral volunteer working with a well-organized scientist who had the student lessons mapped out in detail. She obtained all the materials for us. She coordinated absolutely everything from which grades we’d be working with and which volunteers would help with which lesson at which school at what time and for how long. I did not realize how much time and effort it must have taken to organize everything to reach several hundred K-12 students, but I did enjoy my time with the students and knew that I would like to continue with PhUn Week as the lead scientist. But after my first year organizing my own PhUn Week as a new, full-time faculty member, I came to realize how daunting a task reaching several hundred students at once would be. I was having a hard time planning lessons, obtaining materials, scheduling with teachers, and organizing volunteers, and it was only for one classroom of 3rd graders! I spent a few dozen hours (difficult to find as a new faculty member) organizing, planning lessons, obtaining supplies, and recruiting and training volunteers, only to reach about 30 elementary education students. While PhUn Week went off well and I knew I wanted to continue doing it, the level of effort I had placed on myself was unsustainable. I had hopes that I’d be able to reach many more students, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to best go about doing it again. As luck would have it though, in my 2nd year as lead PhUn week scientist, I had a problem (known all too well to many scientists) that forced me into changing my PhUn Week plans….a research funding problem!

A couple months before PhUn Week, I had a funded grant, with graduate research assistants dedicated to it, encounter a delay. I had 2 graduate students with nothing to do in the lab. It was a PI’s worst nightmare, but for a PhUn Week lead scientist, it was a dream come true. I tasked each graduate student with developing lessons for elementary students, organizing and training their own teams of undergraduate volunteers, and coordinating times with teachers to attend the schools and do the lessons with the children. While I did check to see if the lessons were appropriate and sound and occasionally stepped in to help with logistics of coordinating undergraduate volunteers, I was only minimally involved. I did have concerns initially that PhUn Week wouldn’t be as beneficial for the elementary students, but those turned out to be unfounded. The elementary students had a blast, the undergraduate volunteers had a blast, and the graduate students had a blast. The elementary teachers praised the volunteers and said that the lessons were effective and appropriate. But I was also getting incredible feedback from my graduate and undergraduate students. Many of them stated that it helped them understand physiology better having to think about it at such a simple level, and also reminded them why they were in the field in the first place, re-energizing them in their own studies.

The next year, fortunately for my research, I did not have research funding issues, but I also did not have graduate students that I could dedicate to PhUn Week. Utilizing what I had learned was possible from my graduate students the previous year, I decided to try something similar. I recruited volunteers in early September from our major’s “Exercise science” club by going to their monthly meeting, and talking about PhUn Week for 5 minutes. Over 20 people signed up. I contacted students who had volunteered the year before and asked if they would be willing to be a group leader. With my group leaders established, I called a “planning meeting” and provided the volunteers with the state’s essential learning standards for K-12 that were relevant to physiology, and let the group leaders discuss their thoughts on which ones they wanted to address and how. Volunteers then signed up with specific group leaders, contact information was shared, and an initial plan was established (i.e. Group 1 will be teaching the cardiovascular system to 5th graders). I gave the volunteers deadlines to meet including having a lesson plan approved by me 2 weeks prior to PhUn Week with a list of materials they needed. We had one more meeting in the week prior to PhUn Week where we made sure everyone had what they needed to complete their lessons and knew when and where to be, and that was it. As far as planning was concerned, I had not had to done any time consuming work, and the college student volunteers were having an educational experience too.

During PhUn Week, I attended the volunteer-led sessions as my schedule allowed, and helped out when I could, but otherwise, I was just observing and taking note of what worked well and what didn’t. By all measures, PhUn Week was once again a resounding success. We had quadrupled the number of elementary students involved, and the college volunteers had a meaningful experience that was truly theirs. The feedback I received from the elementary students, their teachers, and the college student volunteers was better than the feedback I had received when I had put in quadruple the time to PhUn Week. I had worked less and make PhUn Week better!

If you want to work less and have a student volunteer-led PhUn Week, here are my Top 5 Tips:

  1. Find volunteers early – PhUN Week is the first week of November, but undergraduate schedules are the least busy in August/September. Get them organized early or you’ll run into scheduling conflicts later.
  2. Recruit volunteers from in-majors clubs or other academic groups with physiology ties – in my experience, these students are usually the ones more likely to sign-up, show-up, and do a good job.
  3. Relinquish control – give the volunteers ownership of their own projects. They get a better experience overall, but also having a vested interest in the project really brings out the best in many students.
  4. Give parameters – Provide the Essential Learning Standards for the grade levels you’re working with and the PhuN Week webpage or LifeSciTRC , but allow volunteers to decide what to do and how to do it.
  5. Establish a designated contact/group leaders – logistics can quickly get complicated when working with undergraduate student schedules and K-12 schedules, smaller groups can help with this. Having someone who has previously volunteered for PhUn Week to organize the small group helps this and keeps the dozens of scheduling/meeting e-mails out of your inbox!
Ed Merritt is an assistant professor 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 School of Medicine. Ed’s research focuses on the molecular events when things go wrong in skeletal muscle. Ed is also involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and melding educational outreach activities with service learning. He is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Education Committee and Teaching Section Steering Committee.

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