Outreach: A Scientist Among Children

Bleary eyed, I turned to look over at my alarm clock.  It was 6:32 am.  As the rest of the world around the illuminated numbers slowly came into focus, I started to regret the decision I had made the day before.  I felt sick to my stomach.  My muscles were tense.  My mouth was dry.  I put my palm against my forehead and let out a long sigh.

I wasn't hung over.  I had simply agreed to teach elementary school kids.  And, it was going to start in just over an hour and a half.

I'll go ahead and put this out there.  I'm not good at interacting with young children.  I always feel a bit awkward around them.  I generally don't know what to talk to them about.  Now, here I was about to speak to them about physiology.  My mind had conjured a child's voice and I could hear it say, "Fizzy all oh gee?"

In truth, I was terrified.  

I had a similar feeling when I defended my dissertation.  At least there, if a question came up, I could fall back on a repository of concepts and jargon that my committee and peers would probably understand.  But, 8... 9... 10-year-olds?  What were the thoughts and ideas they understood?  I couldn't remember what I was thinking at their age, much less what might be in their realm of consciousness nowadays.  Pokémon?  That's still a thing, right?

My brain was trying to anticipate the questions they were going to have about the muscles, the heart, the lungs, and/or the nervous system.  As my biological computer was processing the endless possibilities and "why?" questions, it locked up and stopped responding.  I decided to hit Ctrl-Alt-Del on my brain and "End Task" with a shower before I drove out.

As I pulled up to the parking lot of Senita Valley Elementary, I was reminded of the charm that these schools have.  There's a certain buzz and energy that's in the air as buses and parents drop off their kids curbside.  They file in through the various gates and head (skipping sometimes) towards their classrooms.

I entered the main office and was met by two cheerful ladies.  They asked me to sign in and directed me to room 210, the science enrichment center.  As I walked into the classroom, I was greeted by Steve (Mr. Gordon), the science teacher and some of the other volunteers from the AZPS.

I looked around and saw that most of the activity stations were all set up - split between various organ systems.  There was a host of plastic models: hearts, colorful brains, a dramatically posed man with the superficial muscles visible, and see-through lungs that showed the branching network of bronchioles and blood vessels.  There were also dissected frogs, sheep hearts, and sheep brains.  These were the same materials we routinely use to teach undergraduates about anatomy and physiology in our intro courses.  

A renewed sense of dread washed over me.  I was used to identifying things on these models and samples that sound like arcane incantations.  Trabeculae carneae.  Arbor vitae.  Corpus callosum.  Parietal pleura.  Fibularis brevis.  Atrioventricular septum.  All I needed was a wand.

"Keep it simple," I repeated in my mind.  Abundantly so.  

I primed myself with a few questions.  What are the anatomical essentials that help lead to understanding what these tissues and organs do?  How does the fundamental structure relate to the function?  What words would you substitute to describe these things in a way that is so simple a child could understand?

I sat in one of the low plastic chairs that surrounded each station and spent the next 15 minutes formulating my plan.  Before I knew it, I looked out the window and saw the first group of children walking single file towards the classroom.  Third graders.  Game time.

Mr. Gordon got the children organized and divided between the tables before giving a short introduction to the day's event.  Justin Hoffman (one of our AZPS members that coordinated the entire outreach) led off with a description of who we were, what we were going to be talking about, and solicited any questions before we got started.

Immediately, a hand was thrust into the air.  It was a boy sitting in front of a microscope.  A question already?

"Why does this look like bacon?" he asked.

I laughed. Then, I started to smile as I considered his question.

I had just focused that microscope before the kids entered the class.  It was a slide with a longitudinal section of skeletal muscle.  He was absolutely right.  It did look like bacon.

The insight of his question struck me.  Bacon is simply a thick slice of skeletal muscle.  But, did this child know that meat is mostly muscle?  Did he connect that idea with the process of preparing a histological section?  That it was essentially done by taking a very, very, very thin slice of bacon and putting it on the glass? 

Probably not.  But if I had jumped in with that explanation, I bet he would have understood it.  It would have built upon a concept he could relate to, and he likely would have made a connection that many of my undergraduates seem to miss.  Heck, I hadn't even thought of it like that.

This third grader had just given me a great analogy to help explain histology.

Little did I know, it was the first of several things I'd learn from these kids that day. 

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.

Stay tuned for the next part of this "Outreach Spotlight" article. 

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