A year ago Puerto Rico went through one of the most difficult and devastating events in our modern history, Hurricane Maria, after this category 5 hurricane hit our island we were left without water, electricity, communications and without other basic needs. The schools and universities suffered great damage and because of the slow recovery, the return to normalcy was an upstream battle. However, hope and desire to fight inspired a group of Puerto Ricans scientists, members of the American Physiology Society (APS) Chapter of Puerto Rico, to power through the devastation and personal issues and make sure that PhUn Week took place.
The APS Chapter of Puerto Rico usually develops PhUn week on the campus of several primary and secondary schools creating several activities throughout the week relating to the topic of that year. This activity always resulted in a great positive energy and amazing feedback from the participating students. This PhUn week came to be expected from the students in the participating schools and students would anxiously and excitedly wait for it to happen. Hurricane Maria instigated a change this year, due to the devastation and the damage that occurred to various participating schools. So, we decided to carry out PhUn Week in the laboratories and halls of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus with the purpose of being able to provide and exciting introduction to physiology simultaneously to a larger number of students from different grade levels (elementary, intermediate and higher levels for a total of 102 students).
A university environment gave us the ability to present the different sections of PhUn Week in both the classroom and a proper research laboratory environment, which provided a unique experience to the students. For PhUn Week, the theme of Neuroscience was selected, two sessions were prepared, one with an introductory information in a mini lecture format and a discussion session at the end of the activity to listen to the opinions of the students and provide information that summarized what was learned. In addition, five hands-on activities were held between these two sessions, which were: anatomy, histology, optical illusions, hippocampal function and cerebellum function. To properly work with the large number of students invited; different hands-on activities sessions were created to divide the students into small groups and therefore establishing an environment with more accessibility to the information being given.
We wanted the students to be able to see, listen and have a hands-on relationship with the chosen neuroscience topic. In order to facilitate their learning experience there was an emphasis on the varied hands-on activities. In the anatomy section students explored a human brain, the brain areas, and its function. The histology section, students learned how to use a microscope and viewed fluorescent staining of rat brain cells, such as neurons, astrocytes, and others. The third section showed Optical Illusions, which are images that appear to differ from the reality; in this case the brain captures the information and interprets it depending what had been stored. The next section activity explained the importance of the hippocampus in the process of learning and memory, in this activity, students saw a complex picture for ten seconds, then they were shown a second picture, and asked to explain the picture that makes the complex picture. Finally, in the cerebellum activity, important for motor function and coordination; we asked students to put on goggles with a prism effect and try to throw the balls into box 6 feet away, after about 20 attempts, the students were asked to remove the goggles and quickly throw more balls.
At the end of the activites we observed that the students were very excited, with a positive attitude towards physiology even though they recently went through a negative experience of the Hurricane. Changing students from an everyday school environment to an educational environment in a university campus, with laboratory areas and with different activities provided them with the joy and hope that everything could change in the future. Our goal as a group was for the students to have a day where the Hurricane would not be discussed, and to maintain a series of activities where everything would be normal and without the problems from Maria. In addition to bringing them happiness, we achieved a growth of interest in the areas of study of the university and laboratories, they asked about the facilities and what was done in each laboratory and its instruments. At the end of this activity, we observed that with great effort a bit of hope was achieved. The hurricane negatively impacted all who participated, Professors, researchers, graduate students and yet everyone helped make PhUn week a reality and a positive experience for the students.
We wish to thank all the people who organized this activity from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce Health Sciences, and University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus and special thanks to Dr. Gladys Chompre, Myrella Cruz, Dr. Dinah Ramos Ortolaza, Dr. Caroline Appleyard, Agnes González Charles, and Samuel Bronfen Quinones. Thanks to this post-hurricane Maria PhUn week we discovered that as a university community, when we come together, we make a difference and this activity will be one that will continue, no matter the events, we will offer education and happiness to the whole community.