I was initially asked to participate in PhUn Week by a staff member within the American Physiological Society (APS) headquarters. Reluctantly, I agreed to put one more activity on my busy schedule. As the time approached for the PhUn Week presentation to an elementary school group, an exceptional amount of thought came into what I would present to engage the students. I don’t exactly remember the minute details of what my first PhUn Week presentation was about; however, I will never forget the enthusiasm and excitement shown by the elementary students once they became engaged and participated in the presentation. I was immediately convinced that PhUn Week presentations delivered all over the United States were helping to dispel the myth that “science was boring and very difficult.” As I recall, the PhUn Week presentation caused the students to ask a lot of relevant and also irrelevant questions. The point was that they were not afraid to raise their hands and to make a comment or ask a question about cardiovascular or renal function. One memorable moment was the excitement that the participants showed when the trace of their EKGs were displayed upon a screen and their heartbeats were magnified over a speaker system. As the crowd watched the tracing and heard the sounds of the heartbeats from their brave classmate who volunteered, they simultaneously placed their hands over their heart to feel if their own hearts had a similar beat. As a result, the number of volunteers tremendously increased and so did their heart rates. During this and other PhUn Week presentations, the initial “ice-breaking” moments opened up the excitement and many possibilities and understanding of physiology.
My PhUn Week presentation experience was not only unique with elementary students, the excitement and engagement was exhibited throughout elementary, middle and high schools. During the various educational stages of the participants, there was something that made them more curious about understanding physiology, which resulted in questions, or something they could relate to and wanted to share with the group. The responses were observed in classrooms in Augusta, GA, the inner city of Washington, D.C and various suburbs in Maryland. In my experience, the excitement and curiosity for physiology did not significantly vary, whether the PhUn Week presentations were given to a science interest group or to a gym full of elementary or high school students. To my surprise, the PhUn Week presentations were also well-received by teachers and administrators. One would think that the PhUn Week presentations would be an opportunity for the teachers to take a well-deserved break, grade papers or simply prepare for the next class. Instead, the teachers watched intensely and on many occasions, interjected scientific principles previously discussed in the class.
My preparation and prompts utilized for PhUn Week have evolved over the years. Initially, the presentation depended upon WiFi connections to play videos, the transportation of electronic equipment that would display EKG tracings and speakers for the magnification of heart sounds, to the construction of a urinary system out of plywood, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and plastic containers. Out of all the PhUn Week presentations, the construction and transportation of the urinary system was the most eventful. Although, the system was tested, which included pouring a “small amount” of water through a funnel, which was connected to the aorta and the water was divided at an intersection of the PVC pipe to depict the renal arteries and filtered through additional funnels connected to polyethelyne (PE) tubing, to depict the ureters. The flow of the liquid through the kidneys (the filtering component) down into the ureters, which was connected by considerable amount of clay, was the area of most concern. On the day of the presentation, and after a brief introduction, I asked for a volunteer to come up on stage to assist me with the process. My instruction was: to please pour a “small amount” of water upon prompting. Little did I know that the fourth grader was very excited, and he poured almost a half-gallon of liquid into the urinary system display at one time. As expected, the ureters, which consisted of PE tubing, could not withstand the large of amount of volume and pressure exerted upon the system. As a physiologist, we are trained to “think on our feet.” My first action was to stop the flow of fluid, the second was to reinforce the PE tubing funnel connection with more clay. Paper towels were needed, of course, to clean up the “spill of excitement” on the floor. During that demonstration, the students were able to successfully see how red “blood” goes through the urinary system to produce a clear or “light-yellow tinted urine.” The class and teachers were very patient, excited, appreciative, and helpful during this certain PhUn Week presentation. Now, I often think about other ways in which a hands-on urinary system could have been presented to a group of elementary school students. Nevertheless, the excitement experienced by everyone that day will go down as one of my most memorable PhUn Week presentations in more ways than one.
Over the years, I have looked forward to the PhUn Week presentations and have been asked to return to certain sites on multiple occasions. The impact and appreciation exhibited by the students, teachers and administrators are tangible: you are making a lasting impression upon young students. I received numerous e-mails from the PhUn Week participants expressing their gratitude of my presentations, and excitement for the learning of physiology. My most prized possessions from the PhUn Week presentations are the hand-written cards and letters from the many students. The most creative cards also include a drawing from the particular presentation, possibly including a spill during the constructed urinary system. I must say that PhUn Week has generated an exposure to students of all ages for an excitement in the field/possibilities of physiology. Activities such as PhUn Week are vital for developing and continuing the “pipeline” for the biomedical workforce. Although the participation in these PhUn Weeks were considered an added event on my schedule, I am convinced that it is very important for the understanding and future of physiology. I am also energized by the excitement exhibited by the PhUn Week participants, and students.