Science in Action

When I was in graduate school, I was funded for two years on an NSF GK-12 fellowship.  From the website:

The NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (GK-12) Program supports fellowships and training for graduate students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Through interactions with teachers and students in K-12 schools, graduate fellows can improve communication and teaching skills while enriching STEM content and instruction for their K-12 partners.

This was, literally, a life-changing opportunity for me.  Before those two years, I didn’t think I wanted to focus on teaching; I wanted to work in research, either in industry or at a larger, research-focused university.  But after the first year in an 8th grade science classroom and, even more so, after the second year in a high school AP Environmental Science classroom, I had changed my mind completely.  

So this morning felt almost like I’d come full circle.  I had a classroom full of local 7th and 8th grade students that were taking part in a STEM conference.  I got to teach to 8th graders, in my small college’s classroom.  These students were picked for their high achievements and/or interest in the STEM fields, and they had several mini-classes to pick from both here and at the local technical college.  

The classes were to focus on technology in the STEM fields so I chose to teach something I am incredibly passionate about and something I strongly believe students need to learn at a young age – Exercise Physiology.  

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We used some computer equipment that I regularly use in my own physiology class to study the effects of exercise in heart rate and blood pressure.  This topic fit really well with the theme of the conference and the students seemed to have a lot of fun with the activity and were blown away by the computers and being able to see the graphs in real-time.

Using resting heart rate, reclining heart rate, pre- and post-exercise heart rate, recovery time, and endurance, we calculated a “fitness score” and then had a discussion about how exercise can affect heart health and ways to improve our fitness.

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We also measured blood pressure both before and after exercise to see how that can change.  

For blood pressure, we just used a simple at-home blood pressure monitor, so there were no cool graphs, but the idea was the same.

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Two of my current physiology students (who had just done a similar, though more detailed lab last week) volunteered to help me and I couldn’t have done it without them!

I was really impressed with the students’ questions and their comprehension of the concepts, especially since I gave only a very brief overview of the physiology of circulation.  They were engaged and all of them contributed to the discussion.  Granted, these students were specifically chosen out of the gifted and talented pool, but it was still heartening to see.

I was even more impressed that there were so many more girls than boys.  Traditionally, we think of the STEM fields as being male-dominated, and I really hope this very small sample size is indicative a larger trend towards more girls getting involved in science and math!

It was a short morning, and it went by fast, but it was rewarding and a great break from the normal.  I wish I could do these kinds of things more often!

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