First graders studying germs at Visitacion Valley Elementary School
Photo: Patricia Caldera
By Jeffrey Chen, MS1
Imagine standing in front of 25 kids in a 2nd grade classroom. Your goal is to engage and teach these seven year-old students about the skeletal system. What do you do?
Instead of wheeling in the age-old skeleton-on-a-hook or showing them a video, you bring out a jar of chicken bones that have been soaked in vinegar. The students take them out and are able to bend them like rubber, awed by what they can see and do. Is it magic? No, you explain, it’s science!
Since 1989, the MedTeach  program at UCSF has partnered medical students with teachers at San Francisco elementary schools to plan and co-teach lessons about health and the human body. Run by the UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP) and funded by the School of Medicine, MedTeach recruits teams of 2-3 first-year medical and pharmacy students to work with teachers of kindergarten to 5th grade classes. These volunteer teachers first observe a normal day in the classroom then come back to teach four classes throughout the year.
Dylan Masters is a second-year medical student who worked last year with Pamela Kahn, a 2nd grade teacher at Frank McCoppin Elementary School. For his team, the four lessons focused on the heart and lungs, the digestive system, bones, and nerves. A typical lesson would start off with teaching basic biology – for example, bringing in chicken bones or actual human hearts to show to the students. These specimens come from the SEP Resource Center, which loans donated human organs and other learning materials for science education.
The lessons always extended beyond just science. “We would try to link the science to how it’s affecting them now and what they can do to stay healthy,” said Masters. “Our goal was to get things to stick in their minds.”
For example, he’d follow up the bendy-bone experiment with an explanation that the vinegar dissolves away calcium, which is what makes bones hard. He’d then emphasize the importance of drinking milk.
“The kids loved it. They were intelligent, enthusiastic, and always eager to see us,” continued Masters. “At the end of the year, they even handed us thank you cards with a smorgasbord of organs drawn across the pages. It’s a nice break from school to go out into the community and get rewarded like this.”
Katherine Nielsen, Co-Director of SEP, sees that each year, everyone benefits from the program. Medical students deepen their ability to talk about health in ways that young people can understand, which will help them as doctors. And teachers become more excited about teaching science and more confident in doing so, which ultimately leads to more science being taught in elementary school classrooms. “In the Bay Area, 80% of elementary teachers spend less than an hour a week on science,” she said.
“Importantly, the elementary students learn about the human body and work with young doctors as role models,” Nielsen emphasized. “Getting to know the medical students helps them develop a positive attitude toward medicine and doctors.”
So with simple experiments like squishing together bread and orange juice to mimic digestion or measuring heart rate before and after exercise, students get excited about science in ways that textbooks could never stimulate. “They’re so clearly enthusiastic,” said Masters. “You just have to smile.”