A journey through my years of PhUn: lessons learned

PhUn Week is very dear to me as it has been an important part of my professional life for the past 15 years. I was fortunate to be elected to serve on the APS Education Committee in the early 2000’s.  At that time, APS, and specifically that committee, were interested in increasing member outreach and I was charged with the task to develop an outreach program.  There were other professional societies that promoted “awareness days” to increase their visibility to the public and it was thought that we should attempt to do something similar.  After playing around with various acronyms, I pitched Physiology Understanding or “PhUn” Week to the committee.  My thinking was that very few lay people I spoke with about my career knew what a physiologist was or did, so I thought increasing public understanding of the importance of physiology and physiology research would be a laudable goal and, in doing so, we could show people just how “PhUn” physiology can be!

According to my records, PhUn Week was officially rolled out by APS in 2005 and I have run a PhUn Week event every year since then, having just completed my 13th event this past November.  Over the years I have visited elementary, middle, and high schools.  These schools have been in affluent suburban, middle-class urban, and high-poverty urban schools.  I have done activities with a small class of about 20 and with groups as large as 100 students at a time.  We have covered a wide range of topics, from cardiovascular adaptations to exercise and extreme cold, to DNA and transgenic animal models of disease. One of the things I love about PhUn Week is the ability to share the wonder of physiology with students of all ages and backgrounds and see the excitement in their eyes when they “get it”.

Looking back on the common denominators of my wide variety of experiences with this over the years and the ability to fit a PhUn Week visit into my busy professional life each November, successful PhUn Week participation seems to have come down to three important factors.

#1: Find an effective school partner

My first experience running a PhUn event was at my daughter’s middle school in 2005.  The 8th grade science department chair was extremely interested in providing new experiences for the students, so she was an easy sell when I approached her with this idea.  However, she was adamant that whatever I planned needed to be for all the 8th grade students, and not just selected students, such as the “gifted and talented” group.  I completely agreed with her on that point as I am more interested in reaching the students who don’t think they like science or who don’t think that they “can do” science than working the whiz kids who already get it.  The problem with that though was that I needed to present to a total of 300 students.  We handled the situation by having 3 consecutive 1-hour sessions to 100 students in each session and used the school gym so that the students could spread out and do an activity on cardiovascular adaptation to exercise.   It was a whirlwind but we made it work!  The whole process was made so much easier by having a motivated school partner who came up with solutions to potential problems and was able to make the facility arrangements necessary to have a successful event.

Finding that school partner who is motivated to have you visit and is willing to do necessary shuffling of classes and room scheduling is extremely helpful. I have been lucky over the years to either have connections through my children’s schools or through colleagues.  If you don’t have that luxury, try e-mailing science teachers from websites of local schools.  Teachers will self-select by either replying if they are extremely motivated to assist you or not replying if they are not interested.  One you find a great school partner, the rest is easy!

#2: Connect to the curriculum

Learning always works best by building upon an existing knowledge framework rather than starting from ground zero. In 2006, my daughter was now an 8th grader at the middle school so I had already made the connection with the department chair and now I was aware of much of the science curriculum.  That fall, the class had taken a field trip to a biotech company and learned how to transform bacteria so that they fluoresced in different colors.  I had been a chaperone on the trip so I could see how it was presented to the students and how they were led through the activity.  Were they successful in producing bacteria that glowed different colors?  Yes, they were.  Did they think it was cool?  Yes, they did!  Did they have any clue as to what they were doing or the significance of it?  None whatsoever!  As I was considering what to do for the PhUn Week visit that was coming up, I suggested that I might try to connect to that experience by digging a bit deeper with them and exploring what DNA was, connecting DNA to proteins and their multiple functions and ultimately to physiology!  Back in those days, researchers in our department had recently been the first to develop a transgenic rat that expressed green fluorescent protein and thus glowed bright green.  I connected the glowing bacteria that they had produced with the glowing rats the researchers had produced by working through the science behind both experiments.  In the case of the transgenic rats, however, we were able to discuss the important potential of this new technology to biomedical research.  Close connection to the curriculum is not required but it is helpful and gives what they are learning in school real-world relevance.

#3: Have PhUn!

The most important lesson I have learned over the years is to just have PhUn with it! The students are more engaged when you show them how excited you are about the subject.  My daughter, who was an 8th grader during my 2nd PhUn Week event back in 2006, is now a 3rd grade teacher at a high-poverty inner-city school.  This past fall I visited her classroom for PhUn Week, which is the earliest grade level I had visited to date so I was a bit nervous about hitting the correct level.  I got some ideas from the PhUn week activity book about “Phreezy Bear” and decided to focus on adaptations to cold in polar bears and in humans.  My daughter prepped them for the visit by reading them a picture book on polar bears the week prior so they were able to begin the visit by teaching me about how polar bears   stay warm.  They then tested the effectiveness of these adaptations by wearing fur coats to protect them from the arctic wind (me fanning them), placing their hands in ice water with or without Crisco-lined baggies to demonstrate the insulation blubber provides, and measuring water temperature in small glasses wrapped in white or black paper and set in the sun for an hour showing that the black skin of polar bears absorbs more heat than light skin.  We wrapped it up by discussing the different mechanisms that humans have that protect them from cold.  Through it all, the students and I had great PhUn playing with the activities and learning through exploration!

Equally as important as having PhUn on the day of the event is making the entire preparation process PhUn, because if it is something you are dreading doing, you will be less likely to make time for it. What one considers PhUn will be unique to each APS member so I won’t presume to dictate what that might be for you.  For me, I enjoy not having to reinvent the wheel each year because that it too time-consuming.  I like to take what I have done before and build from that.  At the same time, I would get bored doing exactly the same thing each year so I take what I did and tweak it to keep it PhUn for me.  Some years I tweak it more than others.  It varies depending on whether I’m going to the same school and grade level as the previous year or whether that is changing drastically.  It also depends on how crazy my work schedule is each year as to whether I do something tried and true or take some time to tackle a new idea.  Basically, the ability to conform the experience to my abilities and interest each year is what keeps it really PhUn for me!

Finally, why do I really keep doing this each year? I am a firm believer in the power of scientific exploration with children at an early age and that these experiences are long-lasting.  Long before PhUn existed, I visited my daughter’s kindergarten class and explored lung function with them.  At their 5th grade graduation ceremony, each student in her class had to go to the microphone and say what their best memory of elementary school was.  One boy said that he remembered when Dr. Munzenmaier came to his class 5 years earlier and taught them about lungs and that now he wants to be a doctor. We don’t need every child to go on to have a career in science, but we do need every child and future citizen to appreciate the importance of science in their life and in their world.  I believe that we, as APS members, have the ability, and the responsibility, to do just that.

  Diane H. Munzenmaier, PhD currently serves as Program Director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, specializing in the development of educational programs and resources, as well as professional development for middle school, high school, and college level bioscience teachers.  Diane was previously a faculty member in the Department of Physiology and the Human & Molecular Genetics Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
One thought on “A journey through my years of PhUn: lessons learned”

It is so important to connect what is learned in the classroom to the student’s real world.  I agree that we don’t need every student to desire science as a career but we do want them to understand their world and how it works. I think it’s great that you were able to speak at your daughter’s school.

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