Outreach: A Scientist Among Children

“Can you tell me what the heart does?”

Around the table, several hands eagerly reached for the sky.  I nodded towards an adorable little girl who had a big, friendly smile on her face.  She was bubbling with excitement.

“It pumps blood to the body!”

Kate Smith, another AZPS member and my teaching partner that day added, “And, why is blood important?”

“It carries oxygen and nutrients to keep us alive,” the girl replied.

OxygenNutrients.  I tilted my head to the side, my face holding what must have seemed a quizzical expression to her.  Positive reinforcement would be appropriate right about now I reminded myself.  “That’s right.  Very good!  Ok, someone else… how about the heart itself?  How many chambers does it have?”

I called on another child.  “Four!” she exclaimed.

“Do you know the names of those chambers?”

“Atrium and vertical!” responded another.

I cracked a smile.  “Almost - ventricle.  Great job!”

“I keep forgetting that one,” she said, admonishing herself.  She opened up her science notebook and started looking back at her notes.

We turned the kids’ attention to the plastic, cutaway heart models on the table.

 
Kate Smith showing where the heart sits within the chest.  This was one of five stations set up for the children during the outreach event.  The Department of Physiology at the University of Arizona generously loaned the models for our use.  Photo credit: Justin Hoffman

Kate Smith showing where the heart sits within the chest.  This was one of five stations set up for the children during the outreach event.  The Department of Physiology at the University of Arizona generously loaned the models for our use.  Photo credit: Justin Hoffman

 

“Can you point to where the ventricles are?” I asked.

Immediately, their hands darted out as they all pointed to the area where the chambers were.  Impressive.  Most impressive. 

Would this level of engagement hold with the sheep heart specimens we had?  I grabbed the dissected organ from the tray on the table.

“Here’s a real heart - from a sheep.  If you want to hold it, you’re gonna have to put on gloves.”

No hesitation.  All of them were ready to don gloves and handle the preserved heart.

At that point, I felt a bit disappointed in myself.  I had expected them to be reticent and uncooperative, with blank stares and twisted faces of disgust.  Sadly, I had expected them to behave similarly to many unenthused undergraduates.  I had severely underestimated these kids.

With two decades removed from childhood and my deliberate attempts to minimize my interactions with children in general, turns out I had forgotten something important… what pure, unbridled curiosity looked and felt like.  Seeing it in front of me, embodied in those kids, partially dispelled the hazy veil that shrouded my memory.   

Where had *my* raw curiosity gone?  In that moment, I felt a longing for it.  Certainly, I’m a curious person.  It’s a prerequisite to being a scientist.  But, what these kids had was something qualitatively different.  Compared to theirs, my curiosity seemed wounded or crippled somehow.  Had time done this to me?  Or, something else?

The children’s excitement for learning was contagious.  I felt invigorated.  They caught me off guard with what they already knew (major props to Mr. Gordon).  But, it was my turn to surprise them with some really cool tidbits about the blood vessels.

“Blood gets pumped from the heart through blood vessels-“

“Veins and arteries!” interjected one of the girls.

“That’s right,” I said then shifted their attention to the model depicting the vessels throughout the body.  “How many do you think there are in the body?”

There was a slight pause as they gauged the model.  “27!” one of them said, clearly trying to count them out.

I stuck out my thumb and raised it towards the ceiling.  “Higher.  And, I’ll give you a hint.  A lot more than are shown on that model.”

“100!” another chimed in.

My thumb went up again.

“1000!”  “10,000…?”  “A million…?” 

I could see the surprise building up with each guess based on their facial expressions.  I kept motioning upward.  “Over a billion vessels.”

“Wow…” one of the boys dragged out, his eyes widening. 

Whenever I hear “wow”, it’s usually accompanied with an inflection of sarcasm.  This time it was a genuine expression of wonder.  Success.  Now for the second part of this one-two punch.  “If you took out all the vessels in the body and lined ‘em up, how long do you think they would be?”

“From here to the other side of the school?” one of them guessed. 

I shook my head, “Longer.”

“From here to my house?” offered another.

I smiled.  I had no way of knowing where he lived, but he certainly didn’t live in orbit above Earth.  I shook my head again.

“From here to China!” exclaimed another, thinking she had finally gotten it.

I was expecting that one.  I remember, as a kid, China was the default farthest place in the world from me (incidentally, it’s 7,092 miles if you ask Google the distance between Arizona to China).  I shook my head and raised my thumb into the air, much to her surprise.  “They could go from here, around the entire planet, and back… two times!  Over 60,000 miles.”

Audible gasps. 

“Whaaat?!” exclaimed one of the boys.  “That’s in one person?  Even in me?”  He was clearly shocked, his mind trying to grapple with the idea. 

Mission accomplished.  They were hooked.

 

A group of children examining dissected frogs.  These specimens were used to highlight the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.  Photo credit: Vale School District

 

And, so it went.  The students would rotate through the stations that we had set up, and I saw a fresh group of 5-6 kids every 8 minutes or so.  Time and again, I was impressed with how much they already knew.  We talked about heart structure, valves, vessel function, and some comparative anatomy/physiology.  Their engagement with the material was through the roof.

As we interacted with the models and specimens, some of them shared a bit about themselves and their parents.  One girl proudly told me that her mom was a nurse, and she wanted to be one, too.  Another girl commented to me that she had seen heart surgeries.  That really surprised me, and I asked her where. 

“You can find anything on the internet now,” she replied nonchalantly.

So true.  And, scary at the same time.

I asked one of the kids how they knew so much about the heart already.  He must’ve heard “why” instead of “how”.  Lucky for me.

“I want to be a scientist.  And, you have to know this stuff.  Do you like being a scientist?”

I proceeded to pick up my jaw from the floor.  I want to be a scientist.  There were a lot of things I wanted to be as a kid.  Astronaut.  Race car driver.  Movie star.  Famous musician.  Many different “professionals”.  Scientist didn’t make my list at the time.  It dawned on me, then, what my primary purpose was in that classroom. 

Our society members weren’t the only scientists among those children.  We were helping to cultivate a future generation of scientists, far removed from our own.  We weren’t there to simply disseminate knowledge about physiology.  We were there to give it a voice.  A voice that could speak to the inherent curiosity of these children.  To direct their inquisitive nature to the wonder of biology.  To reveal how cool science is.

I am vulnerable to impostor syndrome.  Based on what I’ve read, many in the academic field are.  But, when that child asked if I liked being a scientist… in that moment, I really felt like a professional scientist.  A trade that ranked among the glamorous careers that children considered.  And, it was nice.  I felt like what I was doing really mattered.

I had the privilege of teaching those kids some interesting aspects of physiology.  But, really, I came out ahead.  They taught me more about myself and how to talk about science than I ever would have imagined.

 

Some of the AZPS volunteers with Mr. Gordon (in the striped polo and lanyard).  That's me on the far right.

 

Dr. John Kanady is a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Janis Burt's laboratory, Department of Physiology, University of Arizona.  His research focus is intercellular communication through proteins known as connexins.  You can follow him on Twitter or check out his blog.

Dr. Kanady is a lecturer for the Department of Physiology at the University of Arizona.  You can connect with him on Twitter @JDKPhD.