You know you are old when the elementary school part of your K-12 science education would likely disqualify a teacher if he/she tried the approach today. At the start of the week, my 8th grade teacher wrote about 10 science factoids on the blackboard. On Friday morning, the blackboard was erased and we were given a quiz to see what we “learned” by reading these weekly science tidbits. Science was very boring, although I do recall one funny experience learning about the scientific process. We were asked to interpret some “data,” using inductive reasoning to discern a pattern, make a generalization, and come up with an explanation. We were told the following: “A man drank gin and tonic water and got drunk. He then drank vodka and tonic water and got drunk. And finally he drank rum and tonic water and again he got drunk.” The class enthusiastically and unanimously concluded that tonic water causes you to get drunk.
Despite these beginnings to my science experience, I chose to major in biology in college and learned about physiology thanks to a vertebrate physiology class I took my senior year. On my last day of college, I sat on the floor of the incredible instructor of this course and said, “What can you do with a degree in biology if you don’t want to go to medical school?” He quickly responded, “You seem to really like physiology, so you should get a PhD in physiology.” I blindly followed his advice even though I was clueless what this would entail, but I learned quickly and managed to get accepted into a graduate program where my passion for physiology grew, especially regarding neural control of the cardiovascular system.
The administration of several US Presidents since the late 1950’s has acknowledged that K-12 schools need to do more to educate our population in STEM fields by providing opportunities to ensure that tomorrow’s leaders have the skills needed to be innovative and to maintain a competitive economy. The acronym STEM was popularized in the 1990’s. This is also the era when some national organizations developed opportunities to include exposure to science outside of the classroom and into public arenas. For example, in 1996 The Dana Foundation spearheaded the development of Brain Awareness Week to “to increase public awareness of the progress and benefits of brain research.” It has evolved into a global education initiative with more than 5,600 partners in 120 countries. When I was on the APS Council in 2005, the APS Education Committee promoted an event that would rely on APS members to reach out to their communities to help increase awareness about physiology. This was the beginnings of Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week, an aptly named event since it was intended to show the public that physiology is fun. We were so lucky that APS Leadership saw a need and was willing to invest a relatively small amount of money (in recent years about $40,000 annually) to stimulate interest in physiology in what has become thousands of young children and hundreds of K-12 teachers each November.
Although I was an early advocate of the program (voting in favor of APS support for the event), my first time to be an active participant in a PhUn Week event was 2009. A teacher at a Jackson MI high school (Nancy Lefere, Lumen Christi High School) contacted APS after reading a notice about the program in a teacher’s magazine. She asked APS how she could find a physiologist who could come to her classroom to participate in PhUn Week, and APS contacted me, and I then reached out to Nancy. I was surprised to learn that she actually teaches a high school physiology course! My colleague Stephanie Watts and I have been going to Lumen Christi High School every year since then. I may be biased, but I think everyone enjoys learning about things that control your blood pressure and heart rate, so we use that as the theme for our PhUn Week activity.
The activity we use at Lumen Christi High School is designed with three goals in mind. One, the students will learn some basic cardiovascular physiology. Two, the students will engage in experimental design. Three, the hands-on activity will educate the students about the cardiovascular effects of drinking caffeinated beverages and aerobic exercise, especially combining the two. Provided one has access to automatic blood pressure and heart rate monitors, the hands-on activity can be done with minimal investment of money (purchase of beverages), and it can be completed in a typical class period.
In the week leading up to the visit by Stephanie and me, Nancy uses the K-W-L- approach to learning as students make lists of things that they Know and Wonder about blood pressure and heart rate. The Learn items are shared with us after our visit to the classroom at the end of the week. Our visit provides students with a valuable opportunity to learn more about blood pressure and heart rate by a Power Point® presentation and the hands-on activity. Some examples of K-W-L items we have gathered over the years are shown in the accompanied K-W-L Chart.
For the hands-on activity, students work in pairs, one being a “researcher” (collects the data) and one is the “subject”. Students receive instructions on the proper way to take their blood pressure using automatic blood pressure cuffs (proper placement of the cuff, arm resting close to heart level, feet flat on floor, relaxed, breathe normally, no talking, etc.). The researchers take and record the blood pressure and heart rate of the subjects on a chart we have prepared in advance. Measurements are made three times: at rest, about 30 minutes after drinking a beverage, and immediately after doing 3-minutes of aerobic exercise (e.g., running, jumping jacks, push-ups). We routinely bring a graduate student with us, giving him/her an opportunity to get engaged in a lively outreach event. And the more hands on deck, the more organized we can be to make sure the students are making the blood pressure and heart arte measurements correctly.
Because the teacher submits the Know and Wonder items in advance of our classroom visit, the presentation can include answers to many of the questions the students posed. The presentation also engages the students by gathering their responses to a variety of questions about blood pressure and heart rate. We used iClicker® technology to gather responses, but if clickers are not available one can do a manual tally of responses to the questions. Typical questions include “Do you know anyone diagnosed with hypertension?”; “Which of the following has the highest blood pressure (or heart rate): a hypertensive man, blue whale, giraffe, or bird?”; “Do you know anyone who had a stroke (or heart attack)?”; “What effect does caffeine (or exercise) have on blood pressure (or heart rate)?”; “Do you think your blood pressure is higher when you are standing, sitting, lying down, or it makes no difference?”
We also talk about the components of experimental design: formulating a hypothesis, developing methods to test a hypothesis, identifying the controls and variables, collecting and recording data, and making a conclusion based on the experimental results. We ask the students what they expect to happen to their blood pressure and heart rate if they consume caffeine and if they exercise. Usually most of the students say that “Drinking caffeinated beverages and exercise will increase my blood pressure and heart rate.”
All students had been asked to refrain from consuming caffeinated beverages for at least 24 hours prior to class. Students are asked in advance if they are sensitive to caffeine and if so, they would not be asked to drink a caffeinated beverage. Parental consent is required to be a subject. Students are divided into groups based on the caffeine-content of the beverage they drink. At a minimum, the study can be done with two beverages: a caffeine-free (0 mg/oz) soft drink and a caffeinated energy drink. We have used either NOS® (10 mg caffeine/oz.) or Rockstar® (15 mg/oz.) energy drink. If possible, all of the beverages used should have the same sugar content so that variation in sugar level is not a factor in the results of the experiment. Also, all students should drink the same volume. It is convenient to use 12-oz as this is the amount in most soft drink cans. The temperature of all of the beverages should also be the same; we use beverages at room temperature.
An almost uniform response is that students who had consumed the energy drink comment that they felt their heart racing after 3-min of exercise. The Figure to the left shows the combined results from our last two visits in which we were able to analyze results from 11 students that drank the caffeinated soft drink and 13 students that drank an energy drink. Systolic pressure (SBP) and heart rate (HR) are both significantly increased after exercise compared to baseline levels in both groups of students. Perhaps surprisingly the results were not significantly greater in those drinking the caffeine-free (CF) beverage versus the caffeinated (C) beverage. One caveat is that blood pressure in these young kids probably begin to correct fairly quickly after they stop exercising. By the time they get back to their seats and settle down to get their pressure and heart rate taken again, it might begin to fall. Students often say they learn not to drink a caffeinated drink before exercising!
In summary, this week-long experience of studying blood pressure and heart rate is a form of active, discovery learning that uses the K-W-L approach in conjunction with a hands-on activity. This format is well-suited to peak the students’ interest in physiology and research because they see for themselves the results of their own study. It mattered more that the students got to be involved in experimental design and conducting the experiments than in the actual results of the experiment. All participants – teachers and students – have PhUn!
The Future of PhUn Week
Many of the APS members who participate in PhUn Week events of other K-12 activities were disheartened to learn that the current APS Council has voted to halt the use of APS funds to support PhUn Week events beginning in 2019. I urge those interested to contact APS Council members to encourage them to reconsider this decision. These events could likely continue with about $20,000 each year. We can bypass the distribution of PhUn Week T-shirts for the APS members and teachers participating in the event and the sports bags given to the students. The trading cards and squeezy hearts could continue to be given as reminders to the kids of the “PhUn” they had on that day in November when a physiologist visited their school. Another option for support of this event is getting dedicated individuals or groups who would be willing to endow the program. Maybe this blog can be used to find APS members willing to help regain support for PhUn Week.