Category Archives: Career

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.
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.