Category Archives: Teacher physiologists partnerships

From the College to the Elementary School Classroom

I have participated in the American Physiological Society’s (APS) Physiology Understanding Week (PhUn Week) for eight years now. Each year I have visited pre-school, kindergarten, or first grade classrooms. I have been teaching at the college level for over 20 years and I do not have children of my own. Therefore, adapting to teaching children has been a challenge. The first thing I learned (the hard way, as usual) is that I need to be very careful with the words I choose. I stood there talking about “increases” and “decreases” assuming they were basic words. The teacher pulled me aside and suggested I switch to the terms “goes up” and “goes down”. I had no idea! Once I realized how much I was unable to judge the best words to use, I began sending a script to the teacher in advance for feedback. I have also learned that elementary school lessons often very structured. College instructors create course objectives and structure their courses to meet and assess them, but it is rare that we create highly structured lesson plans for each topic. One teacher introduced me to a simple way to structure my PhUn Week activities and it has helped me significantly. The components in the table below form a simple recipe for a successful lesson with young children. I usually have four different lessons that last about 12 minutes each and I have found this structure to work very well. Component Description Hook/Motivation/Engage Tell a story, show a video clip, show pictures, etc. Big Idea State what they are going to learn. “Today we are going to learn about …”. Teach Teach them what you want them to learn. Don’t ask, tell. Model Show them the activity they are about to do. Guided Practice/Check for Understanding Make sure they know what they are going to do. Independent Practice Students participate in the activity. Closure/Review Ask them to tell you what they learned. Hook/Motivation/Engage A big difference I have found between college and elementary school students is that the children have a lot of energy, and therefore it is important to find a way to reel them in. However, they are also very curious, so it is not hard to engage them with the right “hook”. Big Idea As I mentioned above, these children and very curious and I have found them to be very anxious to learn. I often wish more of my college students had this incredible drive to learn! It is important to be clear about what they are about to learn and state the “big idea” that will come out of the lesson. Teach In college, instructors often start by asking questions. I have found that when I ask children questions, almost all of them raise their hands and want to answer. I have also found that many of them do not have the right answer; they simply like to be called upon. Wow, what a contrast to college students who often have the right answer but still do not raise their hands! To ensure a smooth and efficient lesson, it is best to first teach them what you want them to learn. It helps to have the children repeat terminology and other information back to you, as they tend to enjoy that, it helps them learn, and makes the teaching more interactive. Model You do not want to spend too much time talking and teaching or you will lose the students’ attention. This is one thing elementary and college students have in common, but I have found that children have an even shorter attention span. It is important to get to the fun stuff, which includes actually seeing and doing something to engage their curiosity and facilitate learning. With the children though, it is particularly important to first model what they are going to do to ensure they understand the activity. Guided Practice/Check for Understanding Once you have modeled the activity, it is time to let them try it out on their own. However, you do not want to let them go completely on their own right away. It is important to have a transition period when you check that they understand what they are supposed to do. You can explicitly ask them, “now what are you going to do”? You can also have one or more of the students model for the class as you provide feedback. This will help ensure better success with the activity. Independent Practice Now they are ready to fully engage with the activity as you watch and help, as needed. I am always impressed by how well they do once they have been properly guided prior to the activity. They tend to be very creative and thoughtful and it is fun and rewarding to watch. Closure/Review Now is the ideal time to ask questions. As I stated above, children love to answer questions. At this point, they have the knowledge to answer correctly. This is often my favorite component of the lesson because it is rewarding to see how much they learned. Working with elementary school children has been a learning experience for me. I learned very quickly that you cannot simply “water down” college content and teach it to children. This lesson plan structure has been invaluable to me and the success of my PhUn Week lessons.

Kim Henige received her Ed.D. in Education (emphasis: Science Education) from the University of Southern California and her M.A. in Physical Education (emphasis: Exercise Physiology) from California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Kim is currently a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at CSUN where she teaches exercise physiology and applied exercise physiology courses. In addition, she directs the CSUN Kinesiology Peer Learning Facilitator program and is the course director for CSUN’s Freshman Seminar. Kim’s scholarship is focused on improving student enjoyment and success through active learning and peer mentoring.

PhUn week activities to a larger multi-level group after Hurricane Maria

A year ago Puerto Rico went through one of the most difficult and devastating events in our modern history, Hurricane Maria, after this category 5 hurricane hit our island we were left without water, electricity, communications and without other basic needs. The schools and universities suffered great damage and because of the slow recovery, the return to normalcy was an upstream battle. However, hope and desire to fight inspired a group of Puerto Ricans scientists, members of the American Physiology Society (APS) Chapter of Puerto Rico, to power through the devastation and personal issues and make sure that PhUn Week took place.

The APS Chapter of Puerto Rico usually develops PhUn week on the campus of several primary and secondary schools creating several activities throughout the week relating to the topic of that year. This activity always resulted in a great positive energy and amazing feedback from the participating students. This PhUn week came to be expected from the students in the participating schools and students would anxiously and excitedly wait for it to happen. Hurricane Maria instigated a change this year, due to the devastation and the damage that occurred to various participating schools. So, we decided to carry out PhUn Week in the laboratories and halls of the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus with the purpose of being able to provide and exciting introduction to physiology simultaneously to a larger number of students from different grade levels (elementary, intermediate and higher levels for a total of 102 students).

A university environment gave us the ability to present the different sections of PhUn Week in both the classroom and a proper research laboratory environment, which provided a unique experience to the students. For PhUn Week, the theme of Neuroscience was selected, two sessions were prepared, one with an introductory information in a mini lecture format and a discussion session at the end of the activity to listen to the opinions of the students and provide information that summarized what was learned. In addition, five hands-on activities were held between these two sessions, which were: anatomy, histology, optical illusions, hippocampal function and cerebellum function. To properly work with the large number of students invited; different hands-on activities sessions were created to divide the students into small groups and therefore establishing an environment with more accessibility to the information being given.

We wanted the students to be able to see, listen and have a hands-on relationship with the chosen neuroscience topic. In order to facilitate their learning experience there was an emphasis on the varied hands-on activities. In the anatomy section students explored a human brain, the brain areas, and its function. The histology section, students learned how to use a microscope and viewed fluorescent staining of rat brain cells, such as neurons, astrocytes, and others. The third section showed Optical Illusions, which are images that appear to differ from the reality; in this case the brain captures the information and interprets it depending what had been stored. The next section activity explained the importance of the hippocampus in the process of learning and memory, in this activity, students saw a complex picture for ten seconds, then they were shown a second picture, and asked to explain the picture that makes the complex picture. Finally, in the cerebellum activity, important for motor function and coordination; we asked students to put on goggles with a prism effect and try to throw the balls into box 6 feet away, after about 20 attempts, the students were asked to remove the goggles and quickly throw more balls.

At the end of the activites we observed that the students were very excited, with a positive attitude towards physiology even though they recently went through a negative experience of the Hurricane. Changing students from an everyday school environment to an educational environment in a university campus, with laboratory areas and with different activities provided them with the joy and hope that everything could change in the future. Our goal as a group was for the students to have a day where the Hurricane would not be discussed, and to maintain a series of activities where everything would be normal and without the problems from Maria. In addition to bringing them happiness, we achieved a growth of interest in the areas of study of the university and laboratories, they asked about the facilities and what was done in each laboratory and its instruments. At the end of this activity, we observed that with great effort a bit of hope was achieved. The hurricane negatively impacted all who participated, Professors, researchers, graduate students and yet everyone helped make PhUn week a reality and a positive experience for the students.

We wish to thank all the people who organized this activity from Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico, Ponce Health Sciences, and University of Puerto Rico Ponce Campus and special thanks to Dr. Gladys Chompre, Myrella Cruz, Dr. Dinah Ramos Ortolaza, Dr. Caroline Appleyard, Agnes González Charles, and Samuel Bronfen Quinones. Thanks to this post-hurricane Maria PhUn week we discovered that as a university community, when we come together, we make a difference and this activity will be one that will continue, no matter the events, we will offer education and happiness to the whole community.

Christine D. Rodriguez-Flores graduate student of the Biology Department at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico (PUCPR). In addition to doing research, I am interested in providing scientific knowledge to the next generation of K-12 students. This is why I helped coordinate the Physiological Understanding Week in 2018. Even with the disaster of Hurricane Maria last year, we followed the plan of bringing the Phun week activity to our students giving them knowledge and hope. The data collected was presented at EB Conference 2018: Translation of Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week Activities to a Larger Multi-Level Group of Students in a Scientific Environment following Hurricane Maria in the PhUn week and in the Teaching of Physiology sections. In the future, I am still interested in bringing to the students an experience with science in a simple manner and make them enjoy the full spectrum of scientific learning.

 

 

A decade of PhUn Week fun in Birmingham

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.

Mike Wyss, Professor of CDIB, Medicine, Neurobiology and Psychology and Director of the Center for Community OutReach Development and the UAB STEM Center received his Ph.D. in Neurobiology from Washington University in St. Louis. In his postdoctoral studies at Washington University School of Medicine under Larry Swanson and Max Cowan, he learned to apply cell biological methods to elucidate the roles of the limbic cortex in behavior and the hypothalamus in autonomic control. He served on the APS Council and is past Chair of the APS Education Committee.
Kathy Berecek received her Ph.D. from the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at the University of Michigan and subsequently was a postdoctoral scholar at the Universities’ of Michigan, Heidelberg and Iowa. Dr. Berecek is a Professor in CDIB, and a Senior Scientist in the Vascular Biology and Hypertension Program and the Cell Adhesion and Matrix Center. She is also is a Fellow of the AHA, the AHA Hypertension Council, the AHA Council for Atherosclerosis, Thrombosis, and Vascular Biology, and the APS Cardiovascular Section.
Dr. Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee received both her B.Sc. (Hons) degree (1989) and Ph.D. (1992) from the University of Manchester (England). After completing her postdoctoral training in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Physiology at Yale University in the laboratory of Dr. Gerhard Giebisch, she worked for Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute and then joined the UAB faculty where she is an Assistant Professor in Cell, Developmental and Integrative Biology (CDIB).
We’ve come a long way, but K-12 students still need exposure to physiology

   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.

Sue Barman received her PhD in physiology from Loyola University School of Medicine in Maywood, Illinois. Afterward she went to Michigan State University (MSU) where she is currently a Professor in the Department of Pharmacology/Toxicology and the Neuroscience Program. She has had a career-long interest in neural control of cardiorespiratory function with an emphasis on the characterization and origin of the naturally occurring discharges of sympathetic and phrenic nerves. She is also a Fellow of the APS and served as its 85th President. She has also served as a Councilor of APS and Chair of the Women in Physiology and Section Advisory Committees of the APS. She is active in the Michigan Physiological Society, a chapter of the APS. She established a jeopardy-style Michigan Physiology Quiz in which teams of undergraduate students compete in answering questions about physiology. Students that participate say it is a great way to study for the MCATs. Sue has had a passion for mentoring young physiologists. She is also a recipient of an MSU Outstanding University Woman Faculty Award, a Distinguished Faculty Award, and a Distinguished Service Award from the Association of Chairs of Departments of Physiology.
A PhUn Week Experience Influenced by Excitement

 

I was initially asked to participate in PhUn Week by a staff member within the American Physiological Society (APS) headquarters. Reluctantly, I agreed to put one more activity on my busy schedule.  As the time approached for the PhUn Week presentation to an elementary school group, an exceptional amount of thought came into what I would present to engage the students.  I don’t exactly remember the minute details of what my first PhUn Week presentation was about; however, I will never forget the enthusiasm and excitement shown by the elementary students once they became engaged and participated in the presentation.  I was immediately convinced that PhUn Week presentations delivered all over the United States were helping to dispel the myth that “science was boring and very difficult.”  As I recall, the PhUn Week presentation caused the students to ask a lot of relevant and also irrelevant questions.  The point was that they were not afraid to raise their hands and to make a comment or ask a question about cardiovascular or renal function.  One memorable moment was the excitement that the participants showed when the trace of their EKGs were displayed upon a screen and their heartbeats were magnified over a speaker system.  As the crowd watched the tracing and heard the sounds of the heartbeats from their brave classmate who volunteered, they simultaneously placed their hands over their heart to feel if their own hearts had a similar beat.  As a result, the number of volunteers tremendously increased and so did their heart rates. During this and other PhUn Week presentations, the initial “ice-breaking” moments opened up the excitement and many possibilities and understanding of physiology.

My PhUn Week presentation experience was not only unique with elementary students, the excitement and engagement was exhibited throughout elementary, middle and high schools. During the various educational stages of the participants, there was something that made them more curious about understanding physiology, which resulted in questions, or something they could relate to and wanted to share with the group.  The responses were observed in classrooms in Augusta, GA, the inner city of Washington, D.C and various suburbs in Maryland.  In my experience, the excitement and curiosity for physiology did not significantly vary, whether the PhUn Week presentations were given to a science interest group or to a gym full of elementary or high school students.  To my surprise, the PhUn Week presentations were also well-received by teachers and administrators.  One would think that the PhUn Week presentations would be an opportunity for the teachers to take a well-deserved break, grade papers or simply prepare for the next class.  Instead, the teachers watched intensely and on many occasions, interjected scientific principles previously discussed in the class.

My preparation and prompts utilized for PhUn Week have evolved over the years. Initially, the presentation depended upon WiFi connections to play videos, the transportation of electronic equipment that would display EKG tracings and speakers for the magnification of heart sounds, to the construction of a urinary system out of plywood, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and plastic containers. Out of all the PhUn Week presentations, the construction and transportation of the urinary system was the most eventful.  Although, the system was tested, which included pouring a “small amount” of water through a funnel, which was connected to the aorta and the water was divided at an intersection of the PVC pipe to depict the renal arteries and filtered through additional funnels connected to polyethelyne (PE) tubing, to depict the ureters.  The flow of the liquid through the kidneys (the filtering component) down into the ureters, which was connected by considerable amount of clay, was the area of most concern.  On the day of the presentation, and after a brief introduction, I asked for a volunteer to come up on stage to assist me with the process.  My instruction was: to please pour a “small amount” of water upon prompting.  Little did I know that the fourth grader was very excited, and he poured almost a half-gallon of liquid into the urinary system display at one time.  As expected, the ureters, which consisted of PE tubing, could not withstand the large of amount of volume and pressure exerted upon the system.  As a physiologist, we are trained to “think on our feet.” My first action was to stop the flow of fluid, the second was to reinforce the PE tubing funnel connection with more clay.  Paper towels were needed, of course, to clean up the “spill of excitement” on the floor.  During that demonstration, the students were able to successfully see how red “blood” goes through the urinary system to produce a clear or “light-yellow tinted urine.”  The class and teachers were very patient, excited, appreciative, and helpful during this certain PhUn Week presentation.  Now, I often think about other ways in which a hands-on urinary system could have been presented to a group of elementary school students.  Nevertheless, the excitement experienced by everyone that day will go down as one of my most memorable PhUn Week presentations in more ways than one.

Over the years, I have looked forward to the PhUn Week presentations and have been asked to return to certain sites on multiple occasions. The impact and appreciation exhibited by the students, teachers and administrators are tangible: you are making a lasting impression upon young students.  I received numerous e-mails from the PhUn Week participants expressing their gratitude of my presentations, and excitement for the learning of physiology.  My most prized possessions from the PhUn Week presentations are the hand-written cards and letters from the many students.  The most creative cards also include a drawing from the particular presentation, possibly including a spill during the constructed urinary system.  I must say that PhUn Week has generated an exposure to students of all ages for an excitement in the field/possibilities of physiology.  Activities such as PhUn Week are vital for developing and continuing the “pipeline” for the biomedical workforce.  Although the participation in these PhUn Weeks were considered an added event on my schedule, I am convinced that it is very important for the understanding and future of physiology.  I am also energized by the excitement exhibited by the PhUn Week participants, and students.

 

Dr. Dexter Lee graduated from Jackson State University with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, proceeded to get a Masters’ of Sciences degree from University of Akron Ohio, and finally obtained a PhD from the University of Missouri-Columbia. His research focuses on the acquisition of hemodynamic data using mouse models of chronic hypertension to identify molecular markers and inflammatory cytokines that regulate blood pressure through renal-dependent mechanisms. Currently, his laboratory is studying the role of peroxisome proliferator activated receptor-alpha and its regulatory effect on inflammatory markers during hypertension.

 

Years of PhUn Week!

 

My first foray into K-12 education was when I volunteered to my daughter’s second grade teacher to come and do science in her classroom during the year. Since that time thirty years ago and subsequently as the scientist-in-residence for our school district, I have routinely taught portions of first and second grade science, visited all of the seventh grade classrooms with science activities, and gone with my university students to teach renal physiology to high school students.  Thus, getting involved in PhUn Week was not much of a stretch for me.

 

 

 

By this time, I have done PhUn Week with the entire seventh grade annually since 2006. I missed 2005 because I was a guest lecturer at Africa University in Zimbabwe during the fall semester when the PhUn Week pilot was launched.  My initial involvement with PhUn Week was to visit the classrooms of my 7th grade teacher colleague and former APS Frontiers in Physiology teacher Sally Stoll.  Since she taught all 7th grade science and life science was a large portion of her curriculum, we planned an entire unit on physiology that was supplemented by the exercise activities that we offered together for the students.  We started with having the students measure their pulse before and after light exercise and expanded to having the students determine their heart rates, breathing rates, and skin temperatures before and after exercise.  Adding measurement of skin temperature not only brings in the issue of where to measure skin temperature and the concept of where the body thermostat is but also exhibits true homeostasis as while heart and breathing rates increase with light exercise, skin temperature almost always decreases with exercise!  During this collaboration, Ms. Stoll was teaching life science during the fall semester so we could plan PhUn Week around the same time as the national launch in 2005.

 

After Ms. Stoll retired, Maria May (a former student of mine when I taught animal physiology to biology majors) came on as the 7th grade science teacher.  She was perfectly willing to have me come to her classroom and do similar activities with her students; however, due to state and district curricular changes life science is not now the main topic for 7th grade science.  Thus, the effects of exercise on heart and breathing rates and skin temperature is not quite the culmination of an entire unit but still fits into the curriculum during the spring semester.  For the last few years, we have conducted our PhUn Week activities in the spring but signed up for PhUn Week in the fall along with everyone else.  I now spend one whole day doing the exercise activities with the students (teams of students are assigned different types of exercise like running in place, jumping jacks, step tests, and running in the hall), one whole day talking about careers in physiology, and one whole day doing a case study activity diagnosing kidney diseases with fake urine for Ms. May’s students.  The kidney disease case studies were written for the APS by current Education Committee chair Jeff Osborn a number of years ago and I use them routinely with students from middle school through college.

 

Now as an experienced science outreach person, I can verify that all levels of students love science activities. I have even taken science activities to the non-profit day care center on whose board I serve as a summer activity for 3-year-olds on up.  My college students have affirmed to me that they learned renal physiology better by having to teach it to advanced biology and anatomy and physiology high school students.  All science professionals need to be able to communicate their science with others for the future of science and their careers!

Barb Goodman received her Ph.D. in Physiology from the University of Minnesota and is currently Professor in the Division of Basic Biomedical Sciences of Sanford School of Medicine of the University of South Dakota. She has been involved in numerous education and communication initiatives of the APS since 1990 including co-authoring two learning cycle units for the APS Frontiers in Physiology Curricular Development program, sponsoring numerous teachers in her laboratory, and serving as a physiologist-in-residence at a number of APS Summer Teaching Forums.

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 (www.phunweek.org) 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? http://www.the-aps.org/phun/pdfs/PhizzyPostcard.pdf

 

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!

References:

  1. http://money.cnn.com/2017/02/28/technology/girls-math-science-engineering/index.html
  2. http://www.latimes.com/science/sciencenow/la-sci-sn-girls-boys-brilliant-20170126-story.html

PURPOSE

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
  8. REPEAT
  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.