A PhUn Week with 1st Graders That Almost Wasn’t: Tips, Lessons, and Luck!

I hesitated to participate in PhUn week, because I wasn’t sure my undergraduate and teaching skills could translate to a K-12 setting and that I could find class for the activity. Luckily, several APS colleagues with amble PhUn Week experience were relentlessly encouraging.

            Start early to identify a teacher/class partner and don’t give up. My PhUn week nearly ended before it began. In July, APS emails out the annual announcement to complete and send in the PhUn week planner for the November event. This gives teachers the opportunity to squeeze the event into a busy Fall semester. Many PhUn Week leaders work with their own child’s class. Not having children, I talked to friends with children about PhUn Week and identified five candidate teachers. I sent each an email describing PhUn Week as an annual APS-sponsored educational outreach program and the Exercise & Nutrition themes; the PhUn Week Save the Date flyer and link to the website were also included. I named and CCed the person who referred them to me, and explained the event could be held another week in November.

Five invites – not one response. By this time school had just started. Where to find a K-12 teacher? Ask friends in non-science groups, community organizations, or hobby-based groups; home-owner association and neighborhood list serves; the school down the street; the Boys & Girls Club. I have a friend married to a pastor and asked whether she knew a teacher in the congregation who might be interested in PhUn Week. “Lisa B. – here’s her email.” I edited my PhUn Week email with the Save the Date flyer attached, hit ‘Send’, and crossed my fingers. Lisa, the lead teacher for 1st grade at a school near my house, quickly accepted. She asked if I’d be willing to include Sylvia P.’s 1st grade class; they regularly team-teach the combined group of thirty-six 1st graders. So relieved and excited, I replied, “Of course!”

            Logistics and assessment of student preparedness. When? Where? Resources? What are students prepared to learn? We ask similar questions when preparing lectures or seminars for our own students. By phone and email, Lisa and I made preliminary plans. We initially selected the Friday of PhUn Week, but due to a school event we changed the date to the following Friday. Flexibility and adaptability help maintain the spirit of outreach.

            With a big extended family, I have met many 1st graders. They are pure energy. Now multiply by 36! The theme from Jaws played in my head. “We’re gonna’ need a bigger boat.” Recruit colleagues and students. My husband Mike is an APS member and exercise physiologist with a bachelor’s in physical education. “I was wondering when you’d finally ask me?!” He had been secretly developing an activity. He thought it’d be fun to teach basic integrative physiology of heart, lung and blood vessels that ensures adequate oxygen delivery to organs and muscles during at rest vs. after a meal vs. exercise. Many topics address aspects of exercise or nutrition. Select a topic you are genuinely excited about and take an approach suitable for the students. Be confident knowing that their teacher has experience and expertise to guide you.

Six weeks before the event, we met Lisa and Sylvia in their classroom where the activity would be held. We explained the activity; they explained what 1st graders were ready to learn. The 1st grade health and science curriculum incorporates The Anatomy Apron that teaches the basic anatomy of major organs (e.g., heart, lungs, gut), concept that organs work together, and importance of good exercise and nutrition habits for all ages and physical abilities1. Students work through the module in spring; PhUn Week activity and timing worked well. They encouraged us to keep terminology simple but accurate; 1st graders are smart and developing a vocabulary. They gave us a copy of The Anatomy Apron. It provided examples of grade-appropriate terminology and illustrations, which helped us tailor the activity to complement the 1st grade health and science curriculum. The classroom had a large dedicated area where the combined group of students regularly met and could easily view a big Smart Board®. Finally, we’d have 50 minutes for the activity.

            Preparing for the activity. While preparedness and organization are critical, we had to consider word choice and account for questions and interjections. You ask a 1st grader a question – they will answer – right or wrong – succinctly or extensively. We patterned the activity after an American Heart Association pre-K activity, Where does the blood go?2, which teaches students blood is pumped to first to the lungs to pick oxygen then flows back to the heart before it is pumped to the body. We elaborated on the circulatory pattern to include blood flow through different organs to ‘give’ oxygen to organs so they can ‘work’ and ‘do what they need to do’; then, through veins blood flows back to the heart and then to the lungs to pick up oxygen. We printed heart, lung, artery, and vein in different colors on individual large cards; on two additional cards we printed stomach and muscle in lower case on one side and STOMACH and MUSCLE in upper case on the other; the latter two cards would be used to indicate digestive and exercise states. In groups of 6, students would pass a red plastic ball, which represented blood would be passed heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. around the circuit at different speeds to represent differences in blood flow during different activity states. For the introduction, we found images of heart, lung, vascular circuit, and ChooseMyPlate from on-line sources3,4. Luckily, for their own activities Lisa and Sylvia had students work in preassigned groups of 6. Implementing the teachers’ proven practices familiar to the students, we’d work with those same 6 student groups and made a set of cards for each group. Each group needed a leader; we recruited two exercise physiology graduate students from my husband’s lab (Dylan and Hyoseon) for a total of 6 adults. We had a practice run. I sent Lisa an email with details and called her to answer any questions. We were set.

            Let the PhUn begin. We arrived at the school early, supplies in hand, and a bit nervous. No matter what happens or what is said or asked, stay on track, have fun. Students are attentive and love learning. The teacher(s) will help students maintain focus. When her class gets riled, Lisa says three words, “Class, class, class.”; to which they reply “Yes, yes, yes.” and settle back down. We began with a short definition of physiology: the study of how your body organs each work and how all organs work together to keep you moving and breathing.

            We introduced ourselves as physiologists who study exercise and kidneys. One student quietly asked, ‘You study how we pee?’ Holding back laughter, I answered, ‘That’s right!’ We projected simple anatomically correct diagrams of heart and lungs on the Smart Board® to facilitate discussion with the students about basic anatomy and function. We wanted them to tell us what they knew. They eagerly answered questions and shared what they knew about the heart, lungs, and other organs. 1st graders want the world or whoever is listening to know what they know. Many students already knew the brain ‘tells other organs what to do’! They knew that when the chest ‘gets big’ the lungs fill with air and oxygen is added to blood. One student explained ‘if food goes down your air pipe you might die, but you can do this’ as he mimicked the Heimlich maneuver; then he clarified ‘air can go down your food pipe, you’ll just burp like this (he burped), but you’ll be ok’. He was totally serious. With straight faces we validated him, and got back to the script.

            1st graders know the body needs oxygen, the lung brings in oxygen, and the heart pumps blood around the body. I was not that smart in 1st grade. Mike held up a red ball to represent blood and introduced a new concept: first the heart pumps blood to lungs where it picks up oxygen, then blood returns to the heart, and then the heart pumps the blood to organs – muscle and stomach – then blood flows through veins back to the heart. He tracked the circuit: Heart à Lung à Heart à artery à stomach à muscle à vein à Heart. He told them we’d be learning how the heart, lung and blood work to make sure your organs get enough oxygen whether you’re resting or eating or exercising. He asked them to get into their work groups, as the teachers guided them. For each group of 6 students, 5 sat with cards labeled Heart, artery, stomach, muscle, and vein to form a circle around the 6th student who held the Lung card; each group had an adult leader. Mike asked the class, “What happens when you sit quietly, listening to Ms. B. and Ms. P.?” With stomach and muscle in small font, students slowly passed the red ball around the circuit as the individual group leader directed and explained oxygen loading and delivery. Next, “After lunch, do your muscles or stomach and intestines need more blood?” Students answered “Stomach and intestines!” They flipped the stomach to STOMACH to represent greater blood flow and calmly pass the ball through the circuit again. Next, “What happens when you exercise? Does your heart beat slow or fast? How slow or fast do you breathe when you exercise?”, Why?” “Now which needs more blood – your stomach or muscle?” They flipped stomach card back to lower case, flipped muscle to MUSCLE, and passed the ball through the circuit at a faster, louder pace.

The take home message. With students still sitting in groups, we reminded them how important daily exercise and good nutrition are to heart, lung and overall health and asked them to name different types of exercise. We encouraged non-competitive exercise and daily exercise with family and friends. Finally, students grouped themselves based on organ and lifted their cards as they shouted out their organ in the correct circulatory order: “Heart! Lung! Heart! Artery! Stomach! Muscle! Vein! Back to the Heart”!

We’ve worked with these phenomenal teachers for two consecutive years. They have patiently helped tailor the PhUn activity to their students each year        . We ask for feedback and tweek accordingly. The activity runs smoothly, even when it doesn’t. The first year just after Mike asked about changes during exercise, there was a fire drill. What happened next was nothing short of amazing. The students quietly set the cards and balls down and formed two lines; we followed suit. The teachers escorted us out to the main parking lot where all other students and staff were lined up. Everyone was perfectly quiet. Once we got the all clear, the teachers lead us in single file back to the classroom where we finished the activity. “Keep calm, and carry on.” Trust your teacher, trust yourself and have PhUn.



1) The Anatomy Apron No. 2534M, written by J. Bryson and L. Vessuto with illustrations by J. Nunamaker and J. Zeigler, ©1986 Educational Insights

2) http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Educator/FortheClassroom/ElementaryLessonPlans/Elementary-Lesson-Planswww.heart.org/HEARTORG/Educator/ FortheClassroom/ElementaryLessonPlans/Elementary-Lesson-Plans_UCM_001258_Article.jsp#.XKRJQIX9qL3

3) http://kok.ovh/index.php?q=heart+-+human+body+parts+-+pre+school+know+your+body+-+animated+videos+for+kids

4) ChoseMyPlate.gov

Alice Villalobos received her B.S.in biology from Loyola Marymount University and her Ph.D. in comparative physiology from the University of Arizona-College of

Medicine. After teaching Anatomy & Physiology II and Introduction to Human Nutrition in the Department of Biology at Blinn College guest lectures at Texas A& M University on the topics of brain barrier physiology and the heavy metal for the last 5 years, she has moved recently to Texas Tech University. There she will join the Department of Kinesiology & Sports Management and teach Physiological Nutrition for Exercise.

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