My professional philosophy is that an important part of my job is to expose the public to science. A big part of that involves getting my face out in the community and talking to them about what science is. I use PhUn week as an opportunity to open the door to the public and invite them into the world of science. In my reflections on my own progression through the educational system I felt that there was not much information given about careers in science. As I went through my scientific training in graduate school, I came to feel a personal conviction that it was my professional obligation to educate the next generation about what science is and what career opportunities exist in science.
What value do you see this providing to the community?
I see this as being valuable to the scientific community, in that it actively exposes students to biomedical science and gives a human face to the abstract notion of ‘scientific research’. It is also a valuable experience for the community I worked in as they are a small rural district and might not otherwise have access to this type of experience/programming.
Who was involved?
To set up the activity I contacted the STEM teacher for the Carlisle, IA school district. The activity was tailored to grades K-3 and took place at Carlisle elementary school. They only have one teacher for the whole district, so this made coordination and scheduling relatively easy. I used the built-in schedule for science education and visited every single classroom in the school over the course of ~ 1 week. I taught in 4, 50-minute classes a day for 8 days. In total this PhUn week activity reached 650 students.
What were your educational objectives?
I had several educational objectives I considered when planning the activity. I wanted to help students develop an understanding of what blood vessels are and how they work. I also wanted to introduce some concepts about how preventative measures such as exercise could improve cardiovascular fitness. Finally, I wanted to engage students in an activity that would give them an appreciation for application of the scientific method.
What activities did you design?
I started each class by spending some time talking about the basics of what blood vessels are and the important function they serve in the body. I also talk a little bit about how abnormal function of blood vessels plays a role in different diseases. To illustrate some of the principles that pertain to blood flow and vascular resistance I designed an activity where students measure transit of a volume of water through pipes (straws) of different diameters. The students formulated hypotheses prior to their experiments, collected and tabulated data, and then we discussed how their results fit with their hypothesis. The students enjoyed the opportunity to role-play being a scientist and were all very engaged throughout the activity. After the discussion of results and hypotheses I brought the discussion back to the effect of blood vessels on health and talked about how regular exercise could affect health by affecting the relative size (degree of constriction) in blood vessels.
Did your prior experiences with PHUN week shape your approach this time?
In prior PhUn week activities I noted that we often had difficulty completing everything we had planned. In the course of planning this activity I decided that I wanted to accomplish everything on my agenda in time frame given. This helped to shape the nature and number of activities that I did for this particular year. Another consideration in designing the activity was that it would be accessible and adaptable for different grade levels from K through 3.
How were the activities received by the students?
The students really loved the activities. My perception was that they were very engaged in what was happening. Part of this engagement stemmed from building a competition into the activity, but it also helped that students are intrigued by the notion of a scientist. The activity of doing what a scientist does was enough of a hook for a lot of students. All the students seemed to be eager to plot their data and see how it compared to findings from other groups. The excitement of discovery and the unknown is an innate trait that we tap into to make this activity a success.
What if anything would you change if doing it again?
Even with all the planning, I think I bit off a bit more than I could chew. Going forward I think I would either need to scale things down or enlist additional help if I was going to do the same thing again. I think also that in the future I’d like to try to find more specific tie-ins to curriculum that the STEM teacher is trying to build so as to augment their curriculum rather than depart from it.
Sarah Clayton, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the department of Physiology and Pharmacology at Des Moines University Medicine and Health Sciences, in Des Moines, Iowa.