Interactive exercises to learn about our muscles and heart for 4th and 5th graders

Often times I think back to one of the joys of elementary school recess, which allowed us to run around the playground, hang off monkey bars, hopscotch, jump rope, and engage in other fun activities with our friends. Unfortunately, many schools have reduced or removed recess time from elementary schools despite the documented positive benefits of physical activity and unstructured play time. When I learned about the PhUn week program and the opportunity to teach kids about physiology and better understand how their bodies work I “jumped” at the opportunity. I have coordinated a PhUn week activity for the past three years for 4th and 5th graders at a local school with a teacher who was already involved in numerous STEM related projects for her students. She was very enthusiastic since while she had introduced her students to different aspects of STEM she was lacking a physiology component.

When I began planning my first PhUn week activity, I wanted to provide interactive, hands-on activities and give additional meaning to the term “active” learning. My own research has focused on skeletal muscle and exercise physiology so it was logical to use my expertise in this area. I also knew I would need other faculty or students to help implement my plans. Two of my undergraduate students quickly volunteered, and they recalled their own memories of elementary school and knew we could make a positive impact on these students. The plan was to spend one full class period with the 4th graders and another period with 5th graders. We began by asking the students if they knew how their muscles worked and why they got tired. Several students explained that we had nerves that made our muscles work, but did not know how nerves and muscles communicated. All students agreed that when they ran or carried heavy backpacks their muscles got tired.

We had 3 stations to study muscle strength and fatigue. The first helped the students see how their brains turned on their muscles by measuring electrical activity in their muscles with electrodes on their skin. To visualize how their nerves controlled their muscles we used iWorx to measure forearm electromyographic activity (EMG) while gripping a force transducer with increasing force. On the computer each student saw how when they gripped harder there was more EMG. To study muscle strength, they measured grip strength with a handgrip dynamometer and compared strength between their left and right hands and among classmates. To experience muscle fatigue, they squeezed the spring handgrip exercisers until they could not squeeze anymore. They also measured their grip strength after the handgrip exercise and saw how their strength decreased with fatigue. They were enthusiastic about all activities and wrote notes about what they learned such as, “We learned our muscles have electricity” and “When you grip something hard your muscles are tired”. I can definitely say that I was tired after several hours of keeping up with active elementary students, but it was so rewarding to see the passion with which the students performed the activities.

My Second PhUn Week For my second year, we used the same activities as year one, but added a station to teach heart physiology and utilize the PhUn Week squeezy hearts as a teaching tool. We talked about how the students can use a stethoscope to listen to their hearts beating and pumping blood to their muscles. The students enjoyed using the stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts and their classmates’ hearts. All the students had used “play” stethoscopes growing up, but were excited to use real doctor’s stethoscopes. We also explained how our hearts worked using the PhUn Week squeezy hearts. In addition the students learned about the location of blood vessels and importance of blood flow. As in the past year, they eagerly told us and their teacher what they had learned about their heart and muscles. As this was the second year, the teacher noted how it inspired her students and throughout the year she had her students reflect back on these activities when talking about how our bodies function. I was encouraged by many students mentioning having remembered material from the previous year’s PhUn Week activity, and were also able to draw parallels between family member’s health and learned content (e.g., “my dad has high blood pressure!”).

My Third PhUn Week For our third year, I decided to switch up the activities to learn about our skeletal muscles while keeping the heart/stethoscope activity. The goals were to help the students learn about how their skeletal muscles provide power and balance and how their hearts work harder during exercise. To learn the importance of muscle power, we used a vertical jump test (Just Jump Mat) to record jump height. Top performer’s jump heights were recorded on a white board to crown the “jump champion”, which fostered friendly competition and motivation for the activity. Next, students learned about how their muscles and vestibular system helps their balance ability.

To learn about balance ability, students performed a Y balance test (YBT™) in which they stood on one leg on a center platform and reached the alternative leg as far as possible in 3 directions (anterior, posterior medial, posterior lateral). They also stood on split foam rollers to learn how their muscles contracted to maintain their balance and keep them from falling. As in the past year, students used stethoscopes to listen to their own hearts and classmates’ hearts at rest and after they had jumped around for several minutes. We explained how their hearts beat faster during exercise to send blood and oxygen to their working muscles. They enthusiastically told us about their plans to practice their jumping power so next year they would be crowned jump champion. Students remembered material from the previous year’s PhUn Week when they measured muscle EMG and were also able to draw parallels that jumping higher was powered by higher muscle EMG. I am planning more fun physiology activities for next year. I continue to see the positive impact we are having on potential future scientists and making physiology accessible to all. It is also extremely rewarding to see the passion and unbridled energy of the students. I have gained even greater respect for our elementary school teachers who create the best learning environment they can while keeping so much active energy in check! I would recommend we all incorporate jump championships and physical activity into our classes (even college) since we know that activity increases brain blood flow which improves learning not to mention a little friendly competition!

Kimberly A. Huey received a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences from the University of California, San Diego and completed postdoctoral training in skeletal muscle physiology at the University of California, Irvine. She is currently a Professor of Physiology in the Department of Health Sciences at Drake University. Dr. Huey’s research focuses on contractile and cellular adaptations in skeletal muscle to changes in loading and activation such as exercise or disuse as well as the effects of medications on muscle function. Within the American Physiology Society, she has served on the Education Committee and Women in Physiology Committee and is currently serving on the Communications Committee. She is a Fellow in the American Physiological Society and American College of Sports Medicine.

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