Several of the physiologists at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have provided considerable time and effort into making PhUn week a great learning experience for K-12 students and teachers in the area. Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee and Kathy Berecek were early PhUn week explorers, taking active learning experiences to the K-5 classrooms in the area, while Mike Wyss conducted both classroom sessions and sessions at the McWane Science Museum in Birmingham. More recently, David and Jennifer Pollock have joined the UAB PhUn week efforts and greatly enhanced its reach.
The original format of UAB PhUn week was to go out to area schools to teach relatively simple, albeit important lessons to K-5 students. Some of the first experiences were to simply take a cow heart to the schools. We quickly realized that the size and weight of a cow heart made the experience difficult, and thus changed to a pig heart-lung preparation, which was more manageable. A plastic tube was inserted into the lungs connected to a bicycle pump, with which the lungs could be expanded with air. For most students this was in itself exciting, but adding to the excitement, the presenter dressed in a white coat and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and told the students that as they participated in touch the heart, they too needed to don PPE. We kept the oral presentation short (< 10m), but provided enough background to help the students understand what they were about to experience. Models of the pumping heart, helped the students to gain insight into how blood flows through the pig heart and how the heart worked in them. For middle school students this expanded into 50-minute classroom sessions with human brains, in which the students began to touch the brains and identify major areas.
While many of these experiences were great, one of the most fun experiences is taking the Lung-O-Meter into a grade 2 or 3 classroom. The experience is relatively simple, but teaches several lessons that the teacher can build on. The ingredients are several empty, gallon milk jugs, a plastic tub that has about a > 2-gallon capacity, magic markers, a measuring cup (or graduated cylinder and a flexible plastic tube. The object is to have each team of about 3 students each mark gradations on the milk jug (hopefully in mL), cap the jug when completely filled, turn it upside down, place it in a tub of water remove the cap, place the plastic tube inside the jug, and then blow into the tube to determine lung capacity. The students then put their data points on a graph on the white board in front of the room relative to the student’s weight and height, to estimate whether there is a relationship between these variables. Thus, the lesson teaches them about measurements, scientific process, team work (each student in the group gets an assigned task) and individual differences. Mostly though, it teaches them science can be fun, and what is more fun than 30 7-9 year olds getting to splash around in water in their classroom.
With this or any other similar activity, it is very important to partner with the teacher and administrators in learning experience. Perhaps of prime concern to both groups is that the class time be used to address key learning objectives, typically linked to the Next Generation Science Standards and/or the state’s science course of studies. It is a great benefit for the visitors to explain to the teacher ahead of the visit, the first principles underlying the activity. Grade K-5 teachers often have relatively little formal science background, and thus these PhUn week experiences can be a great learning experience for them as well, as long as they are presented in a collegial way, remembering the visitors can learn much from the teacher about pedagogy of K-5 students. In general, it is best if the PhUn week teams include a faculty-level physiologist, who can help coordinate the activity, but recognizes that the best ideas for the activities likely will come from physiology students/postdocs who design them. Also, the faculty member can often assuage hard feelings when a school cancels an event at the last minute. This will happen and usually relates to emerging situations at the school that are not easily foreseeable.
Just a brief word about mass presentations versus classroom visits. Our presentations at McWane Science Center for both PhUn week and Brain Awareness Week reach a huge number of students in one week (>2,000), especially when they are scheduled for school break periods. However, these events typically do not link up the teachers to the physiologists. Often, once a teacher and physiologist link together in the classroom experience, the teacher is much more likely to engage the physiologist or join in other learning programs that are offered by the physiologist’s institution. Also, the science museum presentations are typically short (2-5 min.) and more focused on the excitement/wonder of science, while the classroom presentations can go more in depth. Over the 10+ years of UAB’s PhUn week, we have reached about >13,000 students in classrooms and >14,000 in the science center.
The engagement of the faculty physiologist also helps researchers address the Broader Impacts that NSF and in part NIH are demanding in applications for research grants. Both granting agencies want to encourage researchers to translate their science to the public, and PhUn week activities can do just that.