Eighth graders Hannah Weymuller, left, and Stella Gunnip Hunter teamed up on dissection of a pig heart in a very hands-on lesson led by the Seattle Science Foundation. Photos by Marcy Stamper

Eighth graders Hannah Weymuller, left, and Stella Gunnip Hunter teamed up on dissection of a pig heart in a very hands-on lesson led by the Seattle Science Foundation. Photos by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

“You guys have a killer view of the tricuspid valve,” said Joanie Block to a group of eighth graders as they leaned over pig hearts, thin scissors and delicate probes poised.

Block, founder of the Kids in Medicine program at the Seattle Science Foundation (SSF), explained how the valve closes to propel blood into the coronary artery. “It’s a little slippery, isn’t it?” she acknowledged as the students in Melody Beavon’s life science class probed the hearts.

Block and three colleagues came to the Methow from Seattle last week to work with three science classes at Liberty Bell High School. In addition to the dissection unit, the Seattle-based educators worked with students in Beavon’s medical detectives class to teach anthropology and forensics through an examination of human and animal bones, and to present a lesson on genetics and DNA to Lisa Monahan’s 10th-grade biology class.

The instructors pointed out key parts of the heart and their functions and explained where common diseases crop up. They quizzed kids about cardiovascular health, lifestyle and exercise.

Some had already thought about these issues. “There are no McDonald’s here – that’s what’s good about it,” said one boy.

Nick Fitzmaurice and Mason Johnson, seventh graders in the medical detectives class, learn about measuring and identifying human and animal bones.

Nick Fitzmaurice and Mason Johnson, seventh graders in the medical detectives class, learn about measuring and identifying human and animal bones.

Working in pairs, students lifted the hearts using strong, thin membranes called the chordae tendineae.

Eighth grader Noah Batson said he has always liked science. “It was awesome. It’s so cool, seeing the heart and being able to cut it open.”

“Seeing the parts and how the heart works was really interesting,” said his classmate Carlynn Treise, who had never looked closely at a heart before.

Using a human heart and lungs donated to research by an 87-year-old man, the SSF team demonstrated common cardiac procedures such as the insertion of a heart stent to open a clogged artery.

The anthropology unit gave the medical detectives a chance to put their skills to use. Students calculated angles to compile clues about ancestry and performed facial reconstruction with clay and glass eyeballs. They employed their deductive skills to determine gender and age and examined jaw structure and teeth to identify animal skulls.

“They have to develop keen observational skills to look for what’s missing or different,” said Beavon.

In the biology lab, students were presented with a crime scene, including an empty coffee cup and a half-eaten banana. Students analyzed DNA from a bloody napkin, a wad of gum, the coffee cup and a random hair found at the scene and used electrical charges to help solve the puzzle, said Monahan.

Pig hearts are so similar to human hearts that they are used to teach high school students as well as surgeons, who practice new techniques on them.

Pig hearts are so similar to human hearts that they are used to teach high school students as well as surgeons, who practice new techniques on them.

Beyond the hands-on experience, the students learned about the wide range of careers connected with science and medicine, using skills including design and building for medical devices, math, and even art as part of facial reconstruction in forensics.

 

Students and physicians

Not only does SSF educate kids from elementary through high school, but the foundation also trains surgeons in the latest cardiac procedures and devices at its bioskills facility in Seattle. The foundation has a lab and eight operating rooms where physicians practice new techniques, learning what if feels like to do them right – and, equally important – to do them wrong, said Block.

Students in the Seattle area can visit SSF, and a grant this year enabled the SSF educators to visit four schools in North Central Washington. The grant covered all equipment – hearts, dissection tools and bones – meaning that the Methow Valley School District had to cover only the travel costs from Seattle, according to Beavon.

The Kids in Medicine program is designed to reach young people at various levels. They start by exposing pre-kindergarten groups to science, lead in-depth programs such as dissection for middle-school students, and offer more intensive internships for high school students as part of a mentoring program.

Beyond providing hands-on practice for surgeons in Seattle, the foundation broadcasts its trainings around the world. All work at the foundation is conducted on cadavers, although physicians also attend live operations at Swedish Hospital next door.

Pig hearts, because they are so similar to human hearts, are not only used by student scientists, but are also used by physicians as part of their training, said Block.