Children growing up in historically marginalized communities lack access to many resources that they need to thrive, and in many instances, these circumstances predict the opportunities that they will have in life. Some of the statistics that support these observations: “16 million children in the US live below the poverty line”, “Children of color are more than 2 times more likely to be born into poverty than white children” and “Only about 14% of children growing up in poverty will graduate from college”. These are some of the many reasons that experts believe to be behind the low diversity in the STEM field. I believe that early exposure to good role models could change this dreadful statistics.
When I was given the opportunity to start organizing science outreach efforts in the university department where I work, I wanted to marry two of my passions: physiology and reaching to underserved children. I work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), which is located in downtown Birmingham. Most of the students at inner city schools here come from low-income families, and the majority of the students are African American or Hispanic. Many of them have no idea how a scientist looks like and do not realize that science is a possibility in their future.
I partnered with the Birmingham chapter of Teach for America, a national organization that is committed to ending educational inequality in the United States. They put me in contact with teachers at 3 inner city schools near UAB, and I worked with them to start coordinating our visits. The teachers jumped at the opportunity of having physiologists visiting their classrooms, as their students rarely have ever met a scientist in person. We started small, with 1 or 2 classrooms per school, but as we did these visits every year for the last 5 years, the rest of the teachers of that grade would also be interested in our visits. The result is that we now visit 5 classrooms per school, for a total of 3 schools, which means that we reach around 300 students every year. To make this possible, I recruit volunteers among postdocs, grad students, junior faculty members, research assistants and even administrative staff at our department.
On the day of the visit, I divide the volunteers into groups (as many as the classrooms that we will be visiting in the school). Each group has a leader scientist and 3-4 helper scientists that go into each classroom. We start our activities with a short PowerPoint presentation, where we talk about what scientists are, what their role in society is, and we highlight the fact that scientists are regular people, not different from the students in the class. We also briefly review the scientific method, and then, we tell the students about how the kidneys work. The students are divided into small groups (4-5 students/group) and start the hands-on activities. Our activities are focused on kidney damage because that is the focus of our department and our research.
A description of each of the 2 activities follows:
Activity 1: Purpose: to determine which glomerulus is damaged
Materials (per group of students): 2 plastic cups (one labeled “blood” and the other labeled “tubule”), 3 filters with different pore diameter (small, medium and big pores; these are the “glomeruli”), a bag of beads of 2 sizes (small beads are “protein” and big beads are “glucose”; note: the small beads need to be small enough to pass through the medium sized filter but big enough to not go through the small-pore sized filter; similarly, the big beads need to be big enough to go through the big pores of the biggest filter), paper tablecloth and paper towels.
Methods: One of the volunteers fills the cup labeled “blood” with some water and the students are instructed to place the beads into the water. Then, the students place one of the filters on top of the cup labeled “tubule” and then pour the water + beads over the filter. The students are instructed to write down what size of beads passes through that given glomerulus. They repeat the same process with the other 2 glomeruli/filters.
Discussion: Once they are done, the leader explains that normal urine does not contain any protein and that the glomerulus/filter that did not let any bead pass through is a normal glomerulus. Then we explain that when there are small beads in the water, that means that the glomerulus is damaged and that the patient has protein in the urine (we call this acute kidney damage). We also tell them that in a diabetic patient you would find both protein (small beads) and glucose (big beads) in the urine; thus, the filter with big pores is the diabetic glomerulus.
Activity 2: Purpose: Diagnose the kidney disease – Fake urine! The students have to determine which patient is normal, has acute kidney injury or is diabetic.
Materials: 3 small cups with covers labeled “patient 1”, “patient 2” and “patient 3” (we use small histology cups), protein and glucose urinalysis dipsticks (3/group of students), key color chart, Diet Cola soda, albumin, glucose or sugar. Not necessary, but PhUn: gloves and masks.
Teaching Kidney Physiology in Inner City Elementary Schools is PhUn!!
To prepare the fake urine (this can be done in advance and kept in the fridge until you take it to the school): For the normal urine – mix water and enough diet Cola to give a urine-like color; for the acute kidney injury urine – mix water, diet Cola for color and albumin; for the diabetic urine – mix water, diet Cola for color, albumin and glucose/sugar. Make each of the urines in big batches and then distribute in the appropriate cups.
Methods: The volunteer helpers distribute 3 cups filled with urine to each group of students, together with 3 dipsticks and a key color chart. The leader tells the students a story about having an MD friend that works at the hospital. The MD is extremely busy and has asked the leader for help to diagnose the patients. The leader tells the students that the urine is from patients at the hospital (there will be a huge “Eeeewwww” coming from the students at this moment). The leader tells the students that they need to wear the gloves and masks because they are doctors for the day and they are working with “human urine”. Instruct the students to dip the dipsticks in the cups one at a time, count to 10 and look at how they change color; with the help of the volunteers, the students write down their diagnosis.
Discussion: When all the groups are done, the leader summarizes the results for each patient and talks a little bit about how to keep healthy kidneys. Do not forget to tell the students at the end of the activity that the urine was fake!!!
We have found that this activity sparks a lot of interest in the students, since many of them know of somebody with kidney disease due to hypertension or diabetes. Students deeply engage in the activities and ask millions of questions, not only about the kidney and how it functions, but also about our path to science and how a regular day in the laboratory is. Our volunteers are a very diverse group, many of them minorities and from many different countries, so these visits also provide the students with diverse role models in the STEM field.