by Michelle A. Swanson & Cris Kamperschroer
Department of Microbiology and Immunology
Loyola University, Chicago
Children are the next generation of scientists. They need to see how science can affect their everyday lives. The key is to catch their attention at a young age and get them excited about science. The second year class of graduate students in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Loyola Medical Center have decided to take an active role in teaching grade school children in the Chicago area. We decided to teach them why shots are cool, even though they can hurt. We chose this topic because we know that getting shots at the doctor's office was definitely something to which children can relate. We created a program that teaches grade school children how vaccinations "train" the Immune Army to keep all of us healthy. It is amazing how responsive children can be when you ask them, Has anyone here received a shot before? This grabs their attention immediately! Once you have their attention, the story of the Immune Army sells itself.
From this story, the children learn a lot about the immune system and how science can be really exciting. One of the best outcomes, though, is that the children are not the only ones who benefit. It also is amazing how excited WE get talking to the kids. We are presenting the immune system that we study every day, yet during our presentation, the immune system comes to life. It is not data or graphs, it is animate. It reminds us how cool science really is. In order to convey our story, we use color overheads which illustrate the training of our Immune Army during a vaccination response. Our main soldier in the Immune Army is the B cell, which acts like a foot soldier. Our B cell's name is Bobby. We explain that Bobby is constantly patrolling our body looking for germs. After a vaccination, Bobby finds a weakened form of a dangerous germ (examples are influenza virus, chicken pox virus, etc.). Bobby has arms that behave like magnets, and we call them antibodies. We explain to the kids that Bobby locks onto the germs with his antibodies and takes a piece of the germ to show his captain, Tina the T cell. Tina is in charge of the Immune Army and confirms that this is a dangerous invader. She tells Bobby to attack!! We then show Bobby attacking and "training" against the weakened germ from the vaccine. We explain to the children that Bobby can remember, so next time that he encounters a really dangerous germ that looks the same, he can react quicker to help them stay healthy!! Since the children have been sitting a while, we break into a game that allows the kids to move around and to be members of the Immune Army. With some quick, easy props (construction paper cut outs of "T's and "B's"), the children are transformed into the Immune Army. The presenter gets to be the "dangerous" germ. The children work as a team to defeat the germ (while not being too mean to us!) and along the way, learn about the immune response. Also, all of the kids get to take home a laminated book mark depicting the Immune Army fighting a germ. In addition, we send home a letter to the parents which discusses what their child learned that day. In the letter, we suggest questions to ask their child to spark discussion. In effect, we hope that the parents, as well as the children, learn about the Immune Army.