Author Archives: Margaret Stieben

A Team Approach for a PhUn Experience that Applies Curriculum-Based Concepts

In the beginning:

From the time my children were in primary school, I visited K1-12 classes and engaged students in various science activities ranging from demonstrations to hands-on activities. In addition to presenting science demonstrations and explaining scientific principles, I wanted to share the discovery process with them and usually concluded my visit by talking about diversity of science careers and explaining how “the lesson” related to subjects they learned everyday in their classrooms.  My science “outreach” continued with sporadic visits to schools, either by myself or with colleagues.  Sometimes, they were in response to requests for faculty to speak to various groups or to help with a science fair.  It was enjoyable to share my interests while working with a wider educational community, hoping to increase awareness of science and what physiology encompasses.  The enthusiasm of the students and teachers made my outreach experiences fulfilling and fun!  As PhUn Week came into existence, it was a natural extension to my classroom activities.  It opened new vistas by providing a network of people, classroom lessons, educational resources and supportive information to increase awareness of physiology careers.


New vistas:

In addition to finding teachers and administrators that welcomed PhUn Week, it was essential to first meet with the teachers to develop a physiology-oriented activity. One of my goals was to work in parallel with the classroom teacher to get students to apply science and math they were being taught to the physiology that was presented.  I had not done this to any extent previously and found that it worked very well with teachers who actively participated in the lesson with me.  I introduced myself to the class, explained what physiology is and described various careers physiologists and other scientists have.  A popular topic was how the lungs and heart function together.  We constructed a model with a plastic bottle, tubing and balloons to demonstrate how the lungs inflate and deflate during normal breathing and formulated inquiry-based questions such as, “what causes air movement during normal inspiration and expiration.”  This enabled us to illustrate the relevance of Boyle’s Law and discuss principles of pressure-volume relationships, airflow, ventilation, diffusion, gas exchange and even Bernoulli’s Principle using demonstrations, physical laws and basic math.  Videos with animations downloaded from the internet were used to show gas exchange and how the lungs function together with the heart and vascular system.  Students were divided into groups and guided to develop and discuss a hypothesis related to flow, velocity and pressure relationships in the lungs.  The heart as a source of pressure for blood flow was discussed along with its role in systemic and pulmonary circulation.  In a hands-on group activity, students were taught how to measure blood pressure and to calculate heart rate and breathing frequency.  They speculated about changes they would expect with exercise, measured changes in heart rate and breathing frequency that occurred, and summarized data.  We concluded by discussing benefits of a healthy life style and exercise on heart and lung function.







Following up:

A subsequent follow-up quiz comparing the ability to correctly answer curriculum-based concept questions (without reference to physiology) to questions based on our inquiry activity indicated a positive correlation. We also experimented with  “Before” and “After” questions as a way to get students to apply what they learned to the solution of questions that they formulated.  Responses to the questions were used to assess understanding of physiology and scientific principles that were presented. Scores indicated that hands-on activity increased the classes’ overall performance.  Quizzes also helped to identify concepts that needed further explanation. Teachers provided perspective of the curriculum and accommodated our activity into their lesson plans.  Our team gained new perspectives for developing ways to think about and teach physiology and enjoyed interacting with teachers and students.  Students were very enthusiastic about their PhUn Week experience.  The overall model that we used can provide experience with the scientific method, inferential reasoning, formulating questions, making observations, and collecting data while introducing students to future STEM careers.  Our model is flexible and allows concepts to be taught in interesting ways that hold student’s interest and are relevant to every day life.  It can be scaled up or down depending on the grade level and we learned that collaboration is important for developing and coordinating appropriate activities and questions for the grade level.


The strength of collaboration:

In addition to the classroom teachers, our Phun Week activity depended on the collaborative efforts of a diverse team consisting of a physiologist, a physiology graduate student, a graphic artist experienced with information technology and an experienced K1-12 teacher who has participated in APS teacher workshops and poster presentations, taken high school students through the exhibit hall at Experimental Biology meetings, talked to students and got them to talk about career plans. This team approach greatly supported and enhanced the transitions between demonstrations, video presentations and hands-on group activities.  It also made it possible to work with three different classes sequentially on the day of the activity.  The different perspectives of our team members helps to show that science careers also depend on effective communication skills and knowledge of the arts and humanities as well as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.  The University of Louisville is supportive of our community outreach.  At the end of the school year, our PhUn Week activity was followed up by a field trip to the University where three classes visited my laboratory for a demonstration related to our activity and toured educational facilities in the Health Sciences Center.

Our experienced K1-12 teacher (Ann C. Roberts, who is also my wife) provided insight into teaching and learning styles, motivational techniques, incorporating PhUn Week lessons into school curricula, and co-authored our PhUn week perspective. She has good rapport with students and classroom teachers which helps to direct and guide students during presentations and group activities. Ann received her B.S. and M.S. degrees in education at Western Connecticut State College in Danbury, Connecticut.  She received certification in New York, California and Kentucky, has many years of classroom experience in public and private schools and co-authored our PhUn week perspective.

Dr. Andrew M. Roberts received a Ph.D. in Physiology from New York Medical College. He completed postdoctoral training in heart and vascular diseases and a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in pulmonary research at the Cardiovascular Research Institute of the University of California San Francisco, School of Medicine. Afterwards, he was recruited by the University of Louisville, School of Medicine and is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology.  Dr. Roberts’ research focuses on integrative cardiopulmonary physiology, neural control mechanisms, alterations in microvascular regulation and inflammation.  He has served on the Education and Careers Committees of the American Physiology Society and is a Fellow of the APS.



PhUn is What You Make It!

Each year, we celebrate PhUn (Physiology Understanding) Week at a local elementary school in Georgia. Reaching out to elementary-aged students allowed us to surprise and excite young students about the role of physiology in their daily lives. Our goal was to inspire them to have an open mind about who can become a scientist. Studies show that between the ages of 6 and 15, women and minorities lose confidence in their ability to thrive in mathematics and the sciences (1, 2). Therefore, our goal was to demonstrate, to a diverse group of students, that PhUn is what you make it!


Our PhUn consisted of 4 phases: 1) Draw a Scientist, 2) Dress a Scientist, 3) Meet a Scientist and 4) The Scientist Within.


Phase 1: Draw a Scientist. This phase served as our “Scientific Bias Screening”. The goal was to dispel assumptions about who was and could be scientists.

  • Prior to our arrival, we requested teachers to encourage students to draw whatever they considered a scientist.
  • When we arrived, we allowed students to describe their pictures to the class.


This phase was necessary, as it is important to encourage teacher participation since teachers are on the forefront of motivating students daily. Teachers are responsible for shaping and encouraging students to pursue various career opportunities, so having an entire community of teachers to encourage students of all backgrounds (gender, race, socioeconomic, etc.) to pursue STEM fields is critical to promoting awareness of the opportunities and needs within STEM. Furthermore, allowing students to confront their implicit biases about scientists provided a teachable moment.




Phase 2: Dress a Scientist. This phase was important to de-mystify scientific tools and make them relatable.

  • Prior to our arrival, we assembled a “science” bag with laboratory tools (conical tubes, beakers, pipettors, etc.), personal protective equipment (gloves, lab coat, eye googles) and fun items (“crazy” wig). We included items that are used in the typical physiology lab – we decided to leave heavy analysis equipment out of the bag!
  • The teacher selected a volunteer student to be dressed as a scientist.
  • Classmates were asked to name items that the volunteer student needed to “look” like a scientist.
  • After removing the named items from the bag, students were then asked to guess the utility/function of said items. Guiding questions were used to assist.
  • We explained how each item is used and what other purposes it could serve.
  • The item was given to the student scientist to put on or hold.
  • After emptying the bag, students take group pictures with the scientist they dressed.


Many students feel overwhelmed and ignorant because they haven’t been exposed to laboratories. Our goal was to allow students to touch and learn about these tools. As a result, science became a lot less foreign and intimidating.


Phase 3: Meet A Scientist. The phase served to motivate students to consider themselves capable of contributing to scientific discovery.

  • We introduced ourselves as scientists and explained our areas of research.
  • A picture of a “Mad Scientist” was projected. Students were asked if we looked like mad scientists.
  • Pictures of scientists from diverse backgrounds were then projected.
  • We described our journey to becoming scientists from high school to college to graduate school. We also shared personal stories of our experiences at each level, explaining that determination is the key to success.
  • We posed the question “Do you ever ask why…why…but why?”
  • We explained that scientists use the scientific method to answer the “whys” and that each of them possessed the important quality of being inquisitive and that they were indeed “Scientists in Training”.


We were aware that there are multiple reasons students may not be excited about science and scientists – namely it can be seen as nerdy or dangerous. As we clearly do not typify what a “Mad Scientist” appears to be, we aimed to expand the definition what scientist appear to be. The goal was to help them realize that anyone with an interest in learning how things worked can be a scientist.


Phase 4: The Scientist Within. This phase was crucial for helping student internalize their ability to be scientists.

  • We described the cardiovascular system in health and disease.
  • Students were then instructed to form a hypothesis regarding blood flow in a healthy blood vessel versus and unhealthy blood vessel.
    • Step 2- Measure 60 ml of the liquid into the cup.
    • Step 3- Start the timer and use the coffee stirrer to suck up and drink all of the liquid from the cup. Be sure you drink until you reach the bottom of the cup. Do it as quickly as you can but only suck the liquid through the coffee stirrer. Stop the timer as soon as the liquid is gone.
    • Step 4- Record the amount of time it took to drink the 60 ml of liquid.
    • Step 5- Repeat steps 2-5 again but this time use the drinking straw to suck up the water.
    • Step 6- Repeat steps 2-5 two more times so you have run each experiment three times. Record the amount of time it took to drink the 60 ml of liquid.
    • Step 7- When you have recorded your data, go to the APS Physiology Understanding Week website ( and share your findings with other APS Junior Physiologists.
  • We assisted the students in performing the Healthy Heart Experiment II: Does What We Eat Matter to Our Hearts?


The students certainly enjoyed this Phase the most! This phase served to teach students about the cardiovascular systems and how science is already an active component of their lives. By showing the students a fun way to perform experiences, we removed some negative stereotypes about scientists and sparked interests in science we hope are lifelong. Most importantly, students were able to identify themselves as scientists and internalize their abilities to thrive in STEM.

Ultimately, we received plenty of participation and interaction with the students and teachers. We were able to surprise and excite students to re-evaluate who could be a scientist all the while, we were also able to encouraged students to believe that they all have the potential to become scientists themselves. Beyond being rewarding, this event was critical to demonstrating how diversity in STEM is critical for recruiting the next generation of scientists. Seeing two minority women be confident, capable, and qualified inspired the students to ask questions they may not have felt comfortable with in other environments. It also allowed them to believe that being a scientist is possible and that PhUn is what you make it!




Expose elementary students to scientist from diverse backgrounds

Debunk the myth of who a scientist is and looks like

Empower students to view themselves as scientists-in-training

Phase 1: Draw-A-Scientist – Scientific Bias Screening

Prior to arrival

Teachers will instruct students to draw a picture of a scientist

At arrival

Select students to describe their drawings

Phase 2: Dress-A-Scientist

  1. Assemble a science bag
  2. Select a volunteer
  3. Ask ‘What items does he/she need to look like a scientist”
  4. Select a student to provide an answer
  5. Collect item from science bag
  6. Give item to volunteer
  7. Explain purpose/function of item
  9. If items remain in science bag, pull item out…explain

Phase 3: Mad Scientist – Compare and Contrast

Show picture of mad scientist on PowerPoint

Introduction yourself as a scientist

Ask “Do I look like this?”

Explain that scientist look like the average person.

Show pictures of diverse scientists

Encourage students to view themselves as scientists


Dr. Clintoria R. Williams is a renal physiologist. She is a 2001 graduate of Clark University, where she completed a BS in biology. Dr. Williams continued her education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), earning her PhD in physiology in 2008. She returned to Atlanta and joined the Emory University School of Medicine as a postdoctoral fellow, where she established her research program.

Dr. Williams’ research interest focuses on the pathophysiology of kidney disease. Her work has identified a key functional difference in the two isoforms of calcineurin, a family of ubiquitious calcium-dependent enzymes. These enzymes contribute to the regulation of sodium channels in the distal nephron and subsequently blood pressure. Notably, patients that take calcineurin inhibitors for immunosuppression frequently develop hypertension. Since current drugs that inhibit calcineurin do not discriminate between the isoforms of the enzyme, there is an opportunity to refine pharmacological interventions to selectively target calcineurin isoform(s) implicated in the immune system versus isoform(s) involved in salt regulation in the kidney. Her work is currently funded by the American Heart Association.

Dr. Williams has been recognized as an outstanding early career scientist by the American Physiology Society, where she has been an active member of several committees. In addition, she was a founding member of the Minority Postdoctoral Council at Emory University and is a passionate mentor of undergraduate and graduate student scientists.

Sherry Adesina received her B.S. from the University of Georgia and her PhD in Molecular and Systems Pharmacology from Emory University in 2015. As an R&D BIOMEDICAL SCIENTIST with 10+ years experience in academic and industrial settings, Sherry is solution-oriented and currently specializes in front-end preclinical technology innovation within the medical device industry. Her excellent public speaking, written, and verbal communication skills have been published in top scientific journals and presented at national and international conferences. She is a strategic thinker with extensive experience leading multi-functional teams composed of peers, key opinion leaders, and stakeholders. Sherry believes that it is a privilege to demonstrate the importance of science and science education in her daily life with students at all levels of education. In her spare time, she volunteers with Women in Bio, ASPET Education Division, and APS.





PhUn week 101: New Institution, New Partners

In 2011, I attended the PhUn week workshop at Experimental Biology, where I learned about the program and some of the steps to organize the program. Since then, I have organized a PhUn week activity every year for 6 years now, including at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Physiology Understanding (PhUn) week is the American Physiological Society outreach program looking to motivate K-12 students to choose science programs as their higher education path. In the past 5 years, we have developed a series the PhUn week activities from theater-like presentations to high technology hands-on experiments showing how physiology can be integrated to the science curriculum or promoting health care careers.  These activities were performed in the Wabash Valley, IN, area and involved 50 to 100 K-12 students with 8 to 30 college-aged facilitators (undergraduate and graduate).

This year, we had to re-create PhUn week from scratch due to new institution (The University of Texas at El Paso-UTEP), new city (El Paso, TX), and new school district (El Paso Independent School District).  Because of my new position at UTEP, I did not have any direct access to undergraduate and graduate students, except for one senior PhD student and one freshman undergraduate student.  Therefore, we had to start with the basics of PhUn week 101.  First, find a community partner within the school district.  We found it at Dr. Hornedo Middle School’s 6th grade science teacher and a class of 24 children.  Second, recruit undergraduate students willing to dedicate 15 to 20 hours in training, design, and execution within 4-6 weeks.  Six students were recruited from the Bachelors in Rehabilitation Sciences at UTEP.  Third, design a production plan, which begins with a hierarchical model to evolve toward a ‘flat organization model’.  My PhD student and I trained the ‘senior’ undergraduate student in the PhUn week purpose and use of applied technology (i.e. Biopac MP40).  Then, the ‘senior’ trained the remaining 6 undergraduate students.  Once they were all trained in the use of Biopac MP40, we had 2 meetings used for brainstorming and   designing PhUn week activities.  The design of 3 hands-on activities was decided horizontally, within our flat organization, which created a great discussion environment and great new ideas! Once everything was planned, we went to Dr. Hornedo Middle School for a 3-day session.  On the first day, a general description of the program was given and data collected on a ‘reaction time’ activity.  Day 2, data collection in cardiovascular responses to exercise and changes in the electromyogram related to increased workloads.  Day 3, data analysis and review of the results.  The outcomes were successful in many levels: at the school level, children were able to collect data in different physiologic responses (i.e. electromyogram, electrocardiogram, and reaction time) that was used within their science curriculum; at the undergraduate level, students were able to reinforce their social responsibility mentoring school-aged children as role models for a successful college career.  In addition, undergraduate students were able to analyze some of the data and produce 2 abstracts for the PhUn week workshop at the upcoming Experimental Biology meeting and they registered on a UTEP undergraduate science course to explore new career paths within the STEM field; finally, at the Gurovich Lab level, we confirmed that PhUn week is not only fun but tremendously rewarding, as you can change lives and minds of younger generations.


Dr. Gurovich received his Physical Therapy degree from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile in 1990 and worked as a clinician for more than 15 years in different fields such as sports medicine, cardiovascular rehabilitation, and human performance.  In 2006, he moved to University of Florida where he received his doctoral degree in Health and Human Performance in 2010, and a post-doctoral position at University of Florida College of Medicine, in the Department of Physiology and Functional Genomics, where he learned in vitro and in situ techniques that strengthen his translational research background.  In 2011, he attended the PhUn week workshop at Experimental Biology, where he learned about the program and some of the steps to organize the program. In 2012, he was recruited by Indiana State University to help developing the Doctor of Physical Therapy program.  Since then, Dr. Gurovich has organized a PhUn week activity every year for 6 years now, including elementary, middle, and high school students.

Dr. Gurovich is an active member of the American Physical Therapy Association, the American Physiological Society, the International Society for the Advancements in Kinanthropometry, and the American College of Sports Medicine, from which he was granted Fellow member status in 2010.

A journey through my years of PhUn: lessons learned

PhUn Week is very dear to me as it has been an important part of my professional life for the past 15 years. I was fortunate to be elected to serve on the APS Education Committee in the early 2000’s.  At that time, APS, and specifically that committee, were interested in increasing member outreach and I was charged with the task to develop an outreach program.  There were other professional societies that promoted “awareness days” to increase their visibility to the public and it was thought that we should attempt to do something similar.  After playing around with various acronyms, I pitched Physiology Understanding or “PhUn” Week to the committee.  My thinking was that very few lay people I spoke with about my career knew what a physiologist was or did, so I thought increasing public understanding of the importance of physiology and physiology research would be a laudable goal and, in doing so, we could show people just how “PhUn” physiology can be!

According to my records, PhUn Week was officially rolled out by APS in 2005 and I have run a PhUn Week event every year since then, having just completed my 13th event this past November.  Over the years I have visited elementary, middle, and high schools.  These schools have been in affluent suburban, middle-class urban, and high-poverty urban schools.  I have done activities with a small class of about 20 and with groups as large as 100 students at a time.  We have covered a wide range of topics, from cardiovascular adaptations to exercise and extreme cold, to DNA and transgenic animal models of disease. One of the things I love about PhUn Week is the ability to share the wonder of physiology with students of all ages and backgrounds and see the excitement in their eyes when they “get it”.

Looking back on the common denominators of my wide variety of experiences with this over the years and the ability to fit a PhUn Week visit into my busy professional life each November, successful PhUn Week participation seems to have come down to three important factors.

#1: Find an effective school partner

My first experience running a PhUn event was at my daughter’s middle school in 2005.  The 8th grade science department chair was extremely interested in providing new experiences for the students, so she was an easy sell when I approached her with this idea.  However, she was adamant that whatever I planned needed to be for all the 8th grade students, and not just selected students, such as the “gifted and talented” group.  I completely agreed with her on that point as I am more interested in reaching the students who don’t think they like science or who don’t think that they “can do” science than working the whiz kids who already get it.  The problem with that though was that I needed to present to a total of 300 students.  We handled the situation by having 3 consecutive 1-hour sessions to 100 students in each session and used the school gym so that the students could spread out and do an activity on cardiovascular adaptation to exercise.   It was a whirlwind but we made it work!  The whole process was made so much easier by having a motivated school partner who came up with solutions to potential problems and was able to make the facility arrangements necessary to have a successful event.

Finding that school partner who is motivated to have you visit and is willing to do necessary shuffling of classes and room scheduling is extremely helpful. I have been lucky over the years to either have connections through my children’s schools or through colleagues.  If you don’t have that luxury, try e-mailing science teachers from websites of local schools.  Teachers will self-select by either replying if they are extremely motivated to assist you or not replying if they are not interested.  One you find a great school partner, the rest is easy!

#2: Connect to the curriculum

Learning always works best by building upon an existing knowledge framework rather than starting from ground zero. In 2006, my daughter was now an 8th grader at the middle school so I had already made the connection with the department chair and now I was aware of much of the science curriculum.  That fall, the class had taken a field trip to a biotech company and learned how to transform bacteria so that they fluoresced in different colors.  I had been a chaperone on the trip so I could see how it was presented to the students and how they were led through the activity.  Were they successful in producing bacteria that glowed different colors?  Yes, they were.  Did they think it was cool?  Yes, they did!  Did they have any clue as to what they were doing or the significance of it?  None whatsoever!  As I was considering what to do for the PhUn Week visit that was coming up, I suggested that I might try to connect to that experience by digging a bit deeper with them and exploring what DNA was, connecting DNA to proteins and their multiple functions and ultimately to physiology!  Back in those days, researchers in our department had recently been the first to develop a transgenic rat that expressed green fluorescent protein and thus glowed bright green.  I connected the glowing bacteria that they had produced with the glowing rats the researchers had produced by working through the science behind both experiments.  In the case of the transgenic rats, however, we were able to discuss the important potential of this new technology to biomedical research.  Close connection to the curriculum is not required but it is helpful and gives what they are learning in school real-world relevance.

#3: Have PhUn!

The most important lesson I have learned over the years is to just have PhUn with it! The students are more engaged when you show them how excited you are about the subject.  My daughter, who was an 8th grader during my 2nd PhUn Week event back in 2006, is now a 3rd grade teacher at a high-poverty inner-city school.  This past fall I visited her classroom for PhUn Week, which is the earliest grade level I had visited to date so I was a bit nervous about hitting the correct level.  I got some ideas from the PhUn week activity book about “Phreezy Bear” and decided to focus on adaptations to cold in polar bears and in humans.  My daughter prepped them for the visit by reading them a picture book on polar bears the week prior so they were able to begin the visit by teaching me about how polar bears   stay warm.  They then tested the effectiveness of these adaptations by wearing fur coats to protect them from the arctic wind (me fanning them), placing their hands in ice water with or without Crisco-lined baggies to demonstrate the insulation blubber provides, and measuring water temperature in small glasses wrapped in white or black paper and set in the sun for an hour showing that the black skin of polar bears absorbs more heat than light skin.  We wrapped it up by discussing the different mechanisms that humans have that protect them from cold.  Through it all, the students and I had great PhUn playing with the activities and learning through exploration!

Equally as important as having PhUn on the day of the event is making the entire preparation process PhUn, because if it is something you are dreading doing, you will be less likely to make time for it. What one considers PhUn will be unique to each APS member so I won’t presume to dictate what that might be for you.  For me, I enjoy not having to reinvent the wheel each year because that it too time-consuming.  I like to take what I have done before and build from that.  At the same time, I would get bored doing exactly the same thing each year so I take what I did and tweak it to keep it PhUn for me.  Some years I tweak it more than others.  It varies depending on whether I’m going to the same school and grade level as the previous year or whether that is changing drastically.  It also depends on how crazy my work schedule is each year as to whether I do something tried and true or take some time to tackle a new idea.  Basically, the ability to conform the experience to my abilities and interest each year is what keeps it really PhUn for me!

Finally, why do I really keep doing this each year? I am a firm believer in the power of scientific exploration with children at an early age and that these experiences are long-lasting.  Long before PhUn existed, I visited my daughter’s kindergarten class and explored lung function with them.  At their 5th grade graduation ceremony, each student in her class had to go to the microphone and say what their best memory of elementary school was.  One boy said that he remembered when Dr. Munzenmaier came to his class 5 years earlier and taught them about lungs and that now he wants to be a doctor. We don’t need every child to go on to have a career in science, but we do need every child and future citizen to appreciate the importance of science in their life and in their world.  I believe that we, as APS members, have the ability, and the responsibility, to do just that.

  Diane H. Munzenmaier, PhD currently serves as Program Director at the Milwaukee School of Engineering in the Center for BioMolecular Modeling, specializing in the development of educational programs and resources, as well as professional development for middle school, high school, and college level bioscience teachers.  Diane was previously a faculty member in the Department of Physiology and the Human & Molecular Genetics Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Mississippi Museum Madness

We were first introduced to PhUn Week about a decade ago through our service to the APS Education (Mike) and Trainee Advisory (Jenny) Committees.  We both began our involvement with this annual event by visiting our children’s schools in Mississippi and Florida, but in 2013, we combined efforts with other faculty, fellow, students and staff at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) to bring PhUn Week to a larger audience at the Mississippi Children’s Museum.  Through this event every year, we reach over 300 children and parents, and we have over 40 volunteers who spend their Saturday operating 9 different stations.

In addition to being an outreach event for the Jackson, MS community, this PhUn Week event also provides professional-skill-building and team-building opportunities for our students and fellows. Although the first time we held this event at the museum, it required a lot of planning and preparation by faculty, now the event is almost completely run by fellows and students from the Departments of Physiology and Pharmacology.  We have also worked with the UMMC School of Graduate Studies that provides additional support for our event.  Eight team leaders are responsible for recruiting a team of volunteers, training those volunteers on the activity for that station, and making sure all of the supplies are ready and within the budget for the event.  Team leaders are responsible for setting up meetings before the event to discuss best practices for running the station and for ways to engage the children in the activities.  This is a great way for students, fellows, and faculty to learn to talk about science with the public – sometimes the parents have more questions than their children!

The event was divided into 9 stations with 4 organ system based themes.

  1. Welcome Station / Bag Pick Up
  2. Gut Gallery
    1. Antacids and Stomach Acid
    2. Make Poop
  3. Heart Haven
    1. Hold a real heart
    2. Test your heart rate
  4. Kidney Korner
    1. Hold a real kidney
    2. A microscopic view of the kidney
  5. Lung Lounge
    1. Learn about the lung
    2. Test your lung Volume


At the welcome station, volunteers greeted museum patrons to encourage them to visit the special PhUn week event.  Each participant received an activity card and earned “check marks” for every station they visited to help them keep track of which stations they had completed.   When the children were done touring the stations, they returned to the welcome table to receive their PhUn week goodie bags.


At the “Gut Gallery,” children learned about the digestion process by making “poop.” Each child got pumpernickel bread to tear apart (action of the teeth) to squeeze down the neck of a balloon (the esophagus) with some help from soapy water (saliva).  Once the bread was in the body of the balloon (the stomach), the children added vinegar (stomach acid) and began to churn the mixture.  The children then inverted the balloon so that the neck of the balloon became the intestines / colon, and then squeezed out the “poop.”   The kids give a big smile or a loud “GROSS!!” after that!


At the next station, the children explored how over-the-counter antacids can neutralize stomach acid.  We used Sprite as our “safe for children” acid, and we let the children pipette Sprite and red cabbage dye (pH indicator) into 4 plastic test tubes.  Then, they mixed in Tums, Alka Seltzer, Milk of Magnesia, or baking soda to observe the color change as the solution became more basic.  Note – milk of magnesia usually has the biggest pH shift – but the Alka Seltzer is fun when it bubbles!!


The “Heart Haven” station was focused on learning about the structure of the heart through real fixed hearts, plastic models, and computer animations.  Participants were able to examine formalin fixed hearts taken from vertebrate animals at the time of sacrifice (canine, ovine).  The fixed hearts (stored in ethanol) were rinsed in water for 1 week in order to avoid any problems with touching alcohol. The hearts were hemisected prior to the visit so that the students could easily examine the chambers, valves and major blood vessels of heart.

Then, the children examined how going from resting to doing jumping jacks could change their heart rate using Vernier Physiological Monitoring Systems to measure heart rate.   The children plotted their data on a graph (x-axis: resting or exercising, y-axis: heart rate) to visually show the impact of activity on heart rate.



At the “Kidney Korner” station, we again provided plastic models and formalin fixed kidneys (canine, ovine) so that the children could learn about the structure and function of the kidneys.  The kidneys were hemisected prior to the visit so that the students could easily examine the renal cortex, medulla and papilla. The volunteers explained the basic anatomy of the kidneys and how each organ is made from individual, specialized cells, and then the children viewed histological sections from normal kidneys and diseased kidneys (glomerulosclerosis, diabetic kidney disease, fibrosis).



One of the most popular stations for children and their parents is the “Lung Lounge.” Children learned about lung structure and function using plastic models and computer animations, and they got to see real fixed human lungs from a smoker, a patient with emphysema, and a healthy patient.  The children were quick to note how bad smoking is!  The children then got to measure their lung volume (and sometimes challenge their siblings or parents to a contest) using basic household items like milk cartons and straws. Pre-marked gallon containers were filled with water and turned upside down in a water filled bucket.  Using a bendable straw inserted into the opening of the gallon container, children were instructed to inhale maximally and then exhale maximally into the straw.  The exhaled breath displaces water in the gallon jug to allow for measurement of lung capacity. The children then plotted their lung volume as a function of age to see how lungs grow with age.



If you’re attending the Experimental Biology conference, come visit us at the Sunday morning poster session (7:00 AM) to talk with APS members who have been involved in various PhUn Week activities.  It is a great way to get more ideas and learn what works and what doesn’t as you get ready to plan your next event!

  Michael J. Ryan, PhD, is a Professor of Physiology and Director of Graduate Studies in Physiology and the Associate Dean of Student Affairs in the School of Graduate Studies in Health Sciences at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS.  His research is focused on the role of immune system dysfunction in the development of hypertension, and on the impact of placental ischemia in the brain.   He is a former member of the APS Education Committee and has participated in PhUn activities since 2009.

Jennifer M. Sasser, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Director of Graduate Studies in Medical Pharmacology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, MS. Her research is focused on mechanisms of hypertensive kidney disease and preeclampsia, a hypertensive disorder of pregnancy.  Jenny became involved with PhUn week activities in 2010 when she was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Florida, and she now serves on the APS Education Committee.

Diary of an Adventure Junkie: Part Trois…Try Something That Frightens You…It Could Turn Out to be PhUn

Are you a kid person? I am a self-proclaimed kid person, but I haven’t always felt that way. Kids are amazing sponges…seeking knowledge, attention and guidance, but they are also loud, challenging, sometimes germy, balls of energy.

I started out being a non-kid person when I was a kid myself. I primarily surrounded myself with adults, not always by choice, but certainly a circumstantial hazard of being an only child who moved frequently (13 times in 11 years). While I was encouraged to invite friends over and did, I preferred one-on-one time to massive playground free-for-alls. After settling in one place, and becoming a sullen teenager, kids weren’t really an issue, as I lacked siblings and fervently avoided friends’ sticky-handed brothers and sisters who insisted on following us around. By college it was official; I was absolutely not having any kids of my own. I barreled down my educational path determined to achieve great feats by extremely young milestones. So far, so good…

Do you remember the game of life…roll the dice, move your car, and then suddenly you are going to the chapel and your peg (pink in my case) is joined by another peg (blue in this story) and then more pegs…Eek! Now is the time to swerve to the side of the road and reevaluate where I went off course, or did I?

Let’s do a quick self-assessment: 

PhD earned –            

Found a nice boy and visited the chapel –            

Postdoc acquired –           

New pink peg in the backseat –              

WHAT?!?!   Where did the path diverge? At what point along the way did miniature pink pegs enter the picture? Where did my comfort zone go?


Okay deep breaths…

I can do this. I like adventures.  I can do this!



“I can do this” became my daily mantra and guess what…I discovered that I could do this. Not only could I do it, against all odds, I liked it. I was a kid person, well at least a kid person where my kid was concerned.

I still had reservations about other children. After all, they weren’t mine. I tolerated them, went to playdates, talked about “mom things” with acquaintances, but I didn’t really understand. I marveled at mothers who had more than one child, questioned the sanity of those who regularly hosted sleepovers, and stood in awe of preschool teachers who welcomed our offspring into their classrooms every day.

And then one day it happened…

A trusted colleague and friend suggested that we should participate in PhUn week. What is that I asked? I hadn’t even heard of PhUn week, much less knew what it entailed. When I discovered that I could design an activity to teach students physiology I signed up immediately because creating a new physiology demonstration was, after all, fun and exciting. And who wouldn’t love PHYSIOLOGY for kids?!?!


The day arrived and although I had prepared meticulously for my portion of the event, nervousness overtook me. Suddenly it was my turn to speak and the 50 pairs of fifth-grade eyes staring at me seemed to bore into my brain asking me, “Do you like teaching us? What are we going to do? What if we all decide not to raise our hands?” I drew in one more deep breath…


“Who knows how oxygen travels through your body?”


Several hands shot into the air and I knew I was going to be okay. My first participation in PhUn week was a huge success. The students enjoyed it, learned a lot about oxygen transport, we shared our day with colleagues during the PhUn week poster session at EB and published our poster in the LifeSciTRC.

I was hooked! I began planning the next PhUn week activity just a few, short months after my first event.  This time we would include elementary students and preschoolers. I decided to invite 60 fourth grade students to the medical school for a full day of events covering multiple organ systems and branching into other disciplines such as art.  An event at my daughter’s preschool was also on the agenda, teaching 3 and 4-year-olds to listen to heartbeats.  But wait…I don’t like kids…at least I didn’t like them…hmmmm, maybe they were growing on me.

With each new event, it became clearer that I was becoming a kid person and kids were now well within my comfort zone. I no longer felt annoyed with all of the questions; I welcomed the opportunity to share science and relished each hug from appreciative students.  I began hanging crayon-covered thank you cards up in my office, next to research awards and physiology textbooks.  I smiled each time a child stopped me in the hall to tell me about a “more often” food choice they had made instead of a “less often” food choice (one of our lessons included guidance on choosing fruits and vegetables and other healthy choices more often than candy, chips, and coke). I soon found myself looking for outreach opportunities outside of PhUn week and volunteering to teach others about organizing and carrying out community involvement events.  I beamed with pride when I realized that 2017 was my seventh year to participate in PhUn week. Kids no longer frightened me; in fact they excited me, particularly when I shared science with them. I had truly become a kid person.

In September, I asked my daughter, now a third grader (NRTP), if she wanted me to come to her classroom again and lead a PhUn week activity.

“Of course,” she said without hesitation. The conversation that followed went something like this…


Me: “What system should we do this year?  I realize that you are probably tired of the cardiovascular system.” (Please note that this is the primary system in which I trained and of course my favorite, hence the subjugation of my daughter to it year after year.)


NRTP: “Poop!”


Me: “Excuse me, poop is not a system.”


NRTP: “Poop!”


Me: “You want to study the GI system?”


NRTP: “Yes, as long as we make poop!”


Oh no! What had I gotten myself into? Digestion, stomach acid, liver enzymes, bile, and of course, poop…no thank you! Have I mentioned that the GI system is my least favorite? Here comes another adventure far outside the comfort zone. Following many hours of plotting and planning, diligent searching in the LifeSciTRC, and a couple of phone calls to a colleague (big sigh), it was settled, a plan emerged and GI physiology was on the horizon. I would lead a three-part session complete with an experiment, a video and a demonstration. We would even make “poop;” well, digested cracker, but it was close enough.


The day arrived and first PhUn week jitters resurfaced. I didn’t know this classroom, these children, or this system, but I stood determinedly in front of the room. I was pleasantly surprised at the students’ description of a scientist, intrigued by their questions, and excited to share physiology with them. The GI system was suddenly thrown into an entirely different light. Once again kids demonstrated to me that life is better when shared with them.  How else could my least favorite physiological system suddenly seem so amazing?


As I reflect on engagement in outreach opportunities throughout my career, I appreciate that outreach not only opened my eyes to personal change, but also professional paths. After carving a few notches in my PhUn week belt, I was named outreach coordinator for the medical school where I was faculty, given an operational budget for my activities and asked to serve as founding director of a health careers camp for inner city kids.  Professionally, becoming a kid person partially shaped my career and led to new forms of career development.  Teaching science to elementary age students encouraged me to rethink my examples and explanations in the medical physiology classroom.  It also spurred me to engage the students through more media and hands-on activities, ultimately leading to greater student success with understanding the most challenging physiological concepts.


So, what does it all mean?

  • Change is inevitable.
  • Change can be life-altering, but even when it isn’t, it’s a learning experience.
  • Any change can be an adventure if you are willing and open to the possibilities.
  • Change can start as personal and end as professional and vice versa.
  • In many cases the teacher is actually the student.
  • Sometimes the unwanted, or seemingly unwanted, adventures are the greatest.


So, I challenge you…go on an adventure, step outside your comfort zone and choose the divergent path because you never know where it might lead.

  Jessica C Taylor, PhD is the Senior Manager for Higher Education Programs at the American Physiological Society. She is a former professional, graduate and undergraduate classroom educator. Jessica participates in many forms of outreach including PhUn week and outreach writing through the I Spy Physiology blog. She is also the proud parent of an aspiring astrophysicist veterinarian pink peg with whom she dances in the living room, climbs playground equipment, and of course talks science.  She credits her pink peg, her faculty mentor and closest physiology colleagues with showing her the benefits of being a kid person.
The 5W’s of PhUn Week

I’m happy to say this fall will be my 5th year of participating in Physiology Understanding Week.  While the past 4 years by no mean make me an expert, I have learned a few lessons along the way that others might find helpful.

WHO should you partner with?

One of the first questions I asked when first thinking about doing PhUn week was how I was going to find a partner K-12 educator. Luckily, my institution has a close relationship with a local public charter school that is actually located in a building on campus.  Not everyone will have this same sort of easy-access but many institutions do have existing K-12 relationships that you might utilize.  Does your institution have a Teacher Education program?  These folks can likely provide some contacts to get you started.

Even with my own “built in” connection, I still had to do a bit of internet sleuthing to find the appropriate partner teachers. I started with a general email explaining PhUn week (links to helpful APS websites are helpful), giving a general timeframe, and simply asking if they’d be willing to have a conversation about what collaboration might be possible.  I suggest starting by contacting all the science educators you can find.  With any luck, at least one will reply and you can work from there.

WHAT should you do?

Before I contacted prospective teachers I had some idea of what I wanted to do with my activity. However, I strongly encourage you to stay flexible with your ideas until you understand more of the details of your day and be willing to accommodate the partner teachers’ needs.  Who will your audience be?  The activities for 6th grade general science classes needed to be different than those for the high school anatomy course.  Similarly, because I have integrated PhUn week into the courses I teach (Human Physiology and Research in Health and Sport Science), I had to adjust the activities given the learning goals of the courses in which the students were enrolled.

Your K-12 partner will know their own class, so asking them for ideas and feedback on your ideas is critical. For example, if you’re doing stations, a good technique for keeping students engaged, they may suggest a way for students to summarize and take away key points at each station as well as what the ideal time frame for each station may be.  It is important to gauge the level of background knowledge your K-12 students will have and the partner teacher is best positioned to comment on this.  Look on the LifeSciTRC for age-appropriate examples if you need ideas.

WHERE should it take place?

The logistics of a PhUn week experience can sometimes be a barrier to participation. While many times researchers might want to host students in their lab, this is often not possible.  Thus, you’ll likely be in the K-12 classroom.  I encourage you to visit the space in advance or at minimum ask for a few snapshots of the space so you are more comfortable planning your activity.

WHEN should it happen?

The APS advertises PhUn week as the first week in November, this year November 6-10. It’s great to be able to participate at a time when others are, to share your efforts with APS via social media (make sure to gather photo releases if the school doesn’t have a general form already signed and use #PhUnWeek).  However, sometimes this week won’t work, and that’s okay too!  Don’t feel bound to these dates if something else works better.  Do however, make sure you get your Event Planner in to APS by Oct 1st for free promotional materials.

WHY should you participate?

If you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t need much convincing… It’s worth emphasizing, PhUn week is a great opportunity for all involved.  For APS members, it is essential to communicate our work with the general public and next generation of scientists.  If you involve your students, they are able to practice their communication skills as well as reinforce the concepts and techniques they learn and do.  For the K-12 partner educators, it can often expose them to benefits of APS they are unaware of.  Finally, for the K-12 students, they are exposed to professional scientists, the value of higher education, and physiological concepts that might be new for them.  Lastly, for all involved, PhUn week should be fun!

Best of luck to all as you plan and take part in this year’s PhUn activities. If you’re attending the Experimental Biology conference, be sure to submit your activity for the Sunday morning poster session.  This session consistently reinvigorates me for next year’s activities and I’m amazed at the creativity and dedication of our APS members in promoting our discipline!

Anne R. Crecelius, PhD is an assistant professor in the Department of Health and Sport Science at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio. She teaches Human Physiology and a Capstone Research course. She returned to her undergraduate alma mater to join the faculty after completing her M.S. and Ph.D. studying Cardiovascular Physiology at Colorado State University. Her research interest is in the integrative control of muscle blood flow. She is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Teaching Section Steering Committee and the Communications Committee.
Increasing Contact to Scientists and Science-related Careers through PhUn Week Activities

My first exposure to teaching physiology and demonstrating physiological principles through demonstrations was during my undergraduate years serving as a teaching assistant in the human physiology laboratory. It was through these experiences that I discovered a love for teaching physiology through the use of demonstrations. As such, I was thrilled to discover the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s involvement in PhUn week when I started my time there as a graduate student. PhUn week had been a part of our department’s outreach program for a few years before I arrived and consisted of faculty and trainees visiting local area schools and engaging students with activities mainly focused on cardiovascular physiology. I was very happy to join a team of excited scientists dedicated to sharing the wonder of physiology.

A few years later my lab mate, Alicia Schiller, and I were approached by a program on campus that provided science outreach opportunities to nearby Native American tribes inquiring if we would be interested in adapting PhUn week activities into their day-long outreach program. We agreed to recruit volunteers and adapt our activities in order to fit this program and began work on this new endeavor.

We were expected to have approximately 300 middle and high school Native American students present that day so the first necessary task was to begin recruiting help from volunteers. We received quite the impressive response from throughout the Nebraska Physiological Society network (which includes campuses in Omaha; Lincoln; and Vermillion, SD) of faculty, postdocs, graduate students, and undergraduates; 20 in total. Through this we learned that help for education activities is out there and that many people are willing to respond to the call for help.

We then set out to develop the materials and activities we would need for the day of activities, which we were now calling “PhUn Day.” We collected many of the tried and true demonstrations and hands-on activities we had used in previous PhUn week experiences for this age group and also developed a few novel activities. In final, we had nine different activities to be presented at different stations. These included:

  • Heart Rate Changes and Heart Sounds
  • Lung Capacity and Respiration
  • Digestion (Poop Lab)
  • Temperature Sensing/Muscles
  • Eye Dissection (High School only)
  • Diving Reflex
  • Owl Pellet Dissection (Middle School only)
  • Nerves and Reflexes
  • Special Senses/Dermatome Mapping

We also developed a tenth station called, “What Does a Scientist Look Like?” designed to provide participants with an informal encounter with one or more of our volunteers where they could ask questions related to what the daily life of a scientist is like, what kind of education is needed to go into science, and what kind of jobs can you get as a scientist. We’ve found through our previous PhUn week involvements that these times set aside to allow students to freely ask questions about the normal, daily life of our faculty and trainees are some of the most rewarding and fruitful times we spend with students. We wanted to provide a similar encounter for each of our 300 attendees during this event.

We collected all of our demonstrations and background information into a booklet, which is now freely available online at the Nebraska Physiological Society Outreach Website. Because this was also a unique opportunity for us to collect data on the usefulness and attitudes toward these types of demonstrations and events, we developed two surveys. One survey given before the event would serve as a baseline measure of students’ understanding of physiology and attitudes toward scientific careers. The second, paired survey given after the event was to provide data on the ability of the event to change these factors. One thing we learned throughout this experience was how time consuming and demanding preparing for an event like this could be. We owe an immense debt of gratitude to all of our volunteers and affiliated staff members that assisted us in preparing for this event. Science is very much a team effort and so are events and activities such as these.

The evening before the event we gathered our volunteers together at the site and held an “orientation” of sorts. We divided up the stations among the group and provided time for the volunteers to acquaint themselves with the material and do a dry run of the activity. Because many of our volunteers had not done a PhUn week before or because they were doing a novel activity, we knew that this orientation time would be integral to the success of the event. It also served as an opportunity for bonding among the volunteers, many of whom were from different campuses.


The day of the event was a whirlwind of activity. Students filled the room and rotated through the stations, talking with the volunteers and asking scores of questions along the way. We’ve always been curious if our PhUn week endeavors have an impact on the kids we’re interacting with, and because we took survey evaluations before and after the event, this time we were able to measure our impact. Through the day’s activities and interactions we significantly increased students’ understanding of physiology and their interest in scientific careers. What was most striking about the impact was that half of students who initially stated that they were unsure about their interest in scientific careers before the event changed to being interested in scientific careers after the event. We’ve recently published the results of our surveys in AJP Advances in Physiological Education.

We think that this may be one of the largest impacts that events like PhUn week have, in reaching students who have little exposure to scientific careers and the scientists who work in them. These type of events provide that exposure and contact, particularly in demographics where students may have little opportunity to interact with scientists and observe career opportunities in physiology through channels readily available to them. We don’t know for sure if these students who increased their excitement toward science and scientific careers will continue to be interested and start a pursuit towards those careers, but events such as PhUn week help provide the beginning steps towards potential interest. We were encouraged by our data as it suggested that these events and connections do have a meaningful impact in student’s understanding and interest in physiology. Hopefully we can someday consider some of the students we reach through these events as colleagues.

Bryan Becker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where he studies neuronal control of blood pressure and cardio-renal function. Bryan has been involved in PhUn week activities since 2011 as a graduate student at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Bryan is also a current member of the Careers Opportunities in Physiology Committee with the APS and is interested in how events such as PhUn week and other educational outreach activities increase students’ interest in STEM fields.
Hints for a Successful PhUn Week Event

Having been a part of PhUn Week in some way for the past 8 years, I know that the APS Education Office makes it nearly impossible for PhUn Week not to be successful. With all the resources they offer scientists, teachers, and students, anyone hoping to start their own PhUn Week program should have no problems. However, I have found some ways to make the experience even easier to implement from a logistics standpoint, and in so doing, have found that it’s even more educational, not only for the K-12 students, but also the volunteers.

For the first few years I was involved in PhUn Week, I was a postdoctoral volunteer working with a well-organized scientist who had the student lessons mapped out in detail. She obtained all the materials for us. She coordinated absolutely everything from which grades we’d be working with and which volunteers would help with which lesson at which school at what time and for how long. I did not realize how much time and effort it must have taken to organize everything to reach several hundred K-12 students, but I did enjoy my time with the students and knew that I would like to continue with PhUn Week as the lead scientist. But after my first year organizing my own PhUn Week as a new, full-time faculty member, I came to realize how daunting a task reaching several hundred students at once would be. I was having a hard time planning lessons, obtaining materials, scheduling with teachers, and organizing volunteers, and it was only for one classroom of 3rd graders! I spent a few dozen hours (difficult to find as a new faculty member) organizing, planning lessons, obtaining supplies, and recruiting and training volunteers, only to reach about 30 elementary education students. While PhUn Week went off well and I knew I wanted to continue doing it, the level of effort I had placed on myself was unsustainable. I had hopes that I’d be able to reach many more students, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to best go about doing it again. As luck would have it though, in my 2nd year as lead PhUn week scientist, I had a problem (known all too well to many scientists) that forced me into changing my PhUn Week plans….a research funding problem!

A couple months before PhUn Week, I had a funded grant, with graduate research assistants dedicated to it, encounter a delay. I had 2 graduate students with nothing to do in the lab. It was a PI’s worst nightmare, but for a PhUn Week lead scientist, it was a dream come true. I tasked each graduate student with developing lessons for elementary students, organizing and training their own teams of undergraduate volunteers, and coordinating times with teachers to attend the schools and do the lessons with the children. While I did check to see if the lessons were appropriate and sound and occasionally stepped in to help with logistics of coordinating undergraduate volunteers, I was only minimally involved. I did have concerns initially that PhUn Week wouldn’t be as beneficial for the elementary students, but those turned out to be unfounded. The elementary students had a blast, the undergraduate volunteers had a blast, and the graduate students had a blast. The elementary teachers praised the volunteers and said that the lessons were effective and appropriate. But I was also getting incredible feedback from my graduate and undergraduate students. Many of them stated that it helped them understand physiology better having to think about it at such a simple level, and also reminded them why they were in the field in the first place, re-energizing them in their own studies.

The next year, fortunately for my research, I did not have research funding issues, but I also did not have graduate students that I could dedicate to PhUn Week. Utilizing what I had learned was possible from my graduate students the previous year, I decided to try something similar. I recruited volunteers in early September from our major’s “Exercise science” club by going to their monthly meeting, and talking about PhUn Week for 5 minutes. Over 20 people signed up. I contacted students who had volunteered the year before and asked if they would be willing to be a group leader. With my group leaders established, I called a “planning meeting” and provided the volunteers with the state’s essential learning standards for K-12 that were relevant to physiology, and let the group leaders discuss their thoughts on which ones they wanted to address and how. Volunteers then signed up with specific group leaders, contact information was shared, and an initial plan was established (i.e. Group 1 will be teaching the cardiovascular system to 5th graders). I gave the volunteers deadlines to meet including having a lesson plan approved by me 2 weeks prior to PhUn Week with a list of materials they needed. We had one more meeting in the week prior to PhUn Week where we made sure everyone had what they needed to complete their lessons and knew when and where to be, and that was it. As far as planning was concerned, I had not had to done any time consuming work, and the college student volunteers were having an educational experience too.

During PhUn Week, I attended the volunteer-led sessions as my schedule allowed, and helped out when I could, but otherwise, I was just observing and taking note of what worked well and what didn’t. By all measures, PhUn Week was once again a resounding success. We had quadrupled the number of elementary students involved, and the college volunteers had a meaningful experience that was truly theirs. The feedback I received from the elementary students, their teachers, and the college student volunteers was better than the feedback I had received when I had put in quadruple the time to PhUn Week. I had worked less and make PhUn Week better!

If you want to work less and have a student volunteer-led PhUn Week, here are my Top 5 Tips:

  1. Find volunteers early – PhUN Week is the first week of November, but undergraduate schedules are the least busy in August/September. Get them organized early or you’ll run into scheduling conflicts later.
  2. Recruit volunteers from in-majors clubs or other academic groups with physiology ties – in my experience, these students are usually the ones more likely to sign-up, show-up, and do a good job.
  3. Relinquish control – give the volunteers ownership of their own projects. They get a better experience overall, but also having a vested interest in the project really brings out the best in many students.
  4. Give parameters – Provide the Essential Learning Standards for the grade levels you’re working with and the PhuN Week webpage or LifeSciTRC , but allow volunteers to decide what to do and how to do it.
  5. Establish a designated contact/group leaders – logistics can quickly get complicated when working with undergraduate student schedules and K-12 schedules, smaller groups can help with this. Having someone who has previously volunteered for PhUn Week to organize the small group helps this and keeps the dozens of scheduling/meeting e-mails out of your inbox!
Ed Merritt is an assistant professor of kinesiology at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Ed received his doctorate in kinesiology from the University of Texas at Austin and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Cellular and Integrative Biology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine. Ed’s research focuses on the molecular events when things go wrong in skeletal muscle. Ed is also involved in the scholarship of teaching and learning and melding educational outreach activities with service learning. He is a member of the American Physiological Society (APS), serving on the Education Committee and Teaching Section Steering Committee.
From graduate student participant to first-time project coordinator: My PhUn Week story.

I was first introduced to the wonderful world of “PhUn Week” as a doctoral student in 2012. A faculty member had partnered with their son’s 6th grade teacher and asked for graduate student volunteers to carry out and organize the festivities. Eager to get out of the research lab and engage in some community outreach efforts, I quickly volunteered. I next found myself reviewing our lesson plan for the digestive system, “How to make poop!”. The first page of the lesson plan read a point of caution: “Only teachers who can deal with planned pandemonium should attempt this”. What had we gotten ourselves in to?

During our weeks of preparation, we collected all the materials necessary to “make poop” and conducted a few test-runs to ensure we were adequate “poop makers”. In November we were greeted by a classroom full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed 6th graders who fell on the floor in laughter when they heard the word “poop”. After several minutes of wrangling in the forewarned pandemonium, our lesson plan was underway. Never before had I felt so passionate about the importance of mechanical digestion by the teeth or the critical role of pancreatic enzymes. I quickly found myself naturally falling into the role of an educator that day. It was a new sense of satisfaction I hadn’t experienced before, but I knew I wanted more! Not only did my first PhUn Week experience help to inspire those 6th grade students, unbeknownst to me, it also inspired my future career track. I participated again as a graduate student in 2013, but knew that wouldn’t be my last involvement. (Please see the file provided below for more details on the Digestive System activity, The Digestive System (How to Make Poop).pdf)

Fast forward to 2016, I was one year into my faculty position with Butler University’s College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences teaching Anatomy & Physiology to our Master of Physician Assistant Studies students. I found myself missing the community engagement and decided to take on my first PhUn Week as lead project coordinator. I always knew I wanted my first independent PhUn Week event to take place at Pleasant View Elementary (Zionsville, IN). I attended Pleasant View as a kid and knew this would be a great way to give back to an incredible school system. I next sought out the partnership of my sister-in-law and Pleasant View’s STEM/literacy coach, Kathy Drake, M.A. To my pleasant surprise, Kathy’s ambitions were even greater than my own! Next thing I knew, for my first stab at coordinating a PhUn Week event, we had decided to plan activities for the entire school (over 800 Pre-K – 4th grade students and 40 teachers).

With the PhUn Week theme being exercise and health, we decided to focus primarily on cardiovascular physiology. To help with our efforts I recruited 2 peers, senior physiology PhD students from Indiana University School of Medicine, and 12 of my Physician Assistant (PA) students from Butler University. The entire team worked together to create an exciting and diverse lesson plan including the following activities:

  • The Blood Maze
  • Cardiovascular Response to Exercise
  • Careers in Physiology, “What is Physiology?”
  • CPR Awareness
  • The Anatomy Challenge

Pleasant View students were first introduced to the basic anatomy of the heart and circulatory system, followed by a discussion of the importance of oxygen delivery to our entire body (head to toes). To demonstrate this concept, students and their teachers participated in an activity called the “Blood Maze”. Red blood cells (mini red frisbees) were delivered from the left side of the heart to the head and extremities (represented by plastic buckets with pictures taped onto them). Once the oxygen was delivered, students then returned blue blood cells back to the right heart to be sent to the lungs to pick up fresh oxygen. The students were asked to repeat the maze, this time jogging, to demonstrate an increase in blood flow rate. (Please see page 2 of the file provided below for more details on the Blood Maze activity, DrakePhUnWeekActivities2016.pdf)

After completing the maze, students then participated in a variety of exercise activities (jogging, hopping, skipping, jump rope, and hula-hoops) to witness the changes in their own heart rate. My PA students brought along their stethoscopes so they could help students listen to their hearts working hard inside their bodies. The importance of exercise and heart health was further reinforced.

3rd & 4th graders were allotted extra time in order to partake in additional activities including a careers information session during which the fields of physiology research and teaching were introduced to them as well as the PA profession including its similarities and differences to doctors and nurse practitioners. (Please see brief slide deck provided below for reference, DrakeWhatIsPhyisology.pdf)

Students then watched a short CPR educational video and were able to “practice” on a training manikin. The song “Staying Alive” by the Bee Gees was played and used as a tempo guide (a small dance party also ensued). The goal of this session was to bring awareness to what CPR is, why/when CPR would be performed, and what it looks like in order to hopefully remove any fear or discomfort related to student’s perception of CPR.


The final activity, the “Anatomy Challenge”, was a crowd favorite. Working with the Butler PA students, the elementary students solved an anatomy puzzle. Anatomical models of the human torso were used to teach the students about our internal organs, what they look like, their functions, and how they fit together inside our bodies.

Not only did the teachers and students of Pleasant View enjoy their PhUn Week experience, so did my graduate students:

It was really great to watch the kids’ eyes light up as they listened to a heartbeat through the stethoscope. You could see the dots connecting in their brains as we talked about the heart beat getting faster with exercise. It’s always “PhUn” to take what you love and get to spark interest in others and that’s exactly what we got to do at Pleasant View Elementary. As much as I think they enjoyed the days, I think we got a major confidence boost in our abilities to relay information that we’ve been learning over the years as well. – Kelsey Berggren, Butler PA Student ‘18

We walked away from our 2016 PhUn Week efforts confident that we achieved our goal of stimulating young student brains by introducing them to the field of physiology! Deciding to tackle your first independent PhUn Week event can be daunting, but I can say I am now more confident than ever and eager to begin planning for future events. As long as you’re passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists, that passion will be contagious and you can do no wrong!


Mikaela L. Drake, Ph.D. is an  Assistant Professor of Health  Sciences at the College of  Pharmacy & Health Sciences    Butler University Indianapolis, IN.