Prof shows kids what they are made of

Linda Pellico keeps two sets of pig lungs in the back of her Subaru.

This cargo might put off any officer of the law, but to local elementary school children, it is just one item in a unique show-and-tell students simply describe as “cool.”

As part of her “Have Bones, Will Travel” program, Pellico, an anatomy lecturer at the School of Nursing, allows schoolchildren a hands-on anatomical experience. She visits classrooms to spark interest in both science and nursing.

“One [goal] is — get them excited about the human body,” Pellico said. “Get them to wonder. Wonder is the mother of all science.”

With a gadget of tubes and pumps, she is able to inflate the healthy set of pig lungs so a student can feel their squishy, elastic texture. The unhealthy, black lungs, “smoker’s” pig lungs, do not inflate as easily, and the observer can feel a hard tumor in the lower right lobe.

The lungs are part of a tool box of real human and animal body parts Pellico brings for the children to observe and touch.

“In the tool kit are human bones, the entire human skeleton, pig lungs — normal and after smoking — a kidney, heart sounds, lung sounds [and] an x-ray view box,” she said.

Before the students get to poke and prod the organs, Pellico leads them through a series of questions to get them thinking about the human body; her first question — “What are you made of?”

After a few attempts, she said, one student will answer “water.” This opens a discussion on tears, sweat and, finally, blood. She then tells the class what makes blood different from water and how red blood cells are made.

“Look at the clock — three million, six million, nine million,” Pellico said. “Every second you’re alive you have to produce three million blood cells. So who’s doing it?”

She said she goes through a similar process for several parts of the body, including the spine and skin.

In addition to discussing gross anatomy and physiology, she also talks about how children can make healthy choices, such as putting on sunscreen when they go outside or wearing a helmet when they ride their bicycles. Pellico carries the skull of a car-accident victim with her, so students can observe its fragility.

Most of the children are shocked when they see how thin the human skull really is, she said.

“I talk about how the body works, do a show-and-tell about that part of the body or system, and talk about how they can make healthy decisions and how they can weigh benefit and risk,” Pellico said. “I’m not convinced they make healthier choices. I’m not that naive. But I think they’re more informed about the choices they make.”

She officially started “Have Bones, Will Travel” in 1996, after she had been informally presenting at her children’s grammar school for a couple of years. She said word got out that she was teaching anatomy to children, and she received calls from other schools asking her to visit. Pellico said she then started thinking about the complexity of the human body and how she could get children interested.

She visits one school per week during the spring semester and participates in several fairs every year, including those run by the NAACP and Yale-New Haven Hospital. She also visits New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas.

Pellico gets her materials from the School of Nursing and a variety of places in New Haven.

“The truth is I found the bones in the closet a long time ago,” she said. “I just opened up a supply closet and saw a human skeleton. That was it. I pilfered them.”

Pellico goes to Ferraro’s Foods for her animal organs, and she gets her human body parts from the autopsy department at the School of Medicine. She obtains interesting X-rays from Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Pellico said she hopes “Have Bones, Will Travel” not only increases children’s interest in science in general but also encourages them to consider nursing as a profession.

“There are two aspects to this program,” Pellico said. “The first is I really do aim to get children excited about their body and about science and about how magnificently they’re made. On the other hand, we’re in the middle of a national nursing shortage. Literature suggests by fifth grade, children have already decided what the prestigious professions are.”

Pellico said she hopes that by standing in front of a classroom and proudly proclaiming she is a nurse, she allows children to see nursing as a desirable line of work occupied by exciting and intelligent people.

Janet Donovan teaches third grade at Pond Hill Elementary School in Wallingford, Conn., where Pellico visited last week. She said Pellico has been coming to her school for years, and the children always respond to the visits with enthusiasm.

“She does a phenomenal job. The kids love her, and she’s totally entertaining the whole time,” Donovan said. “In one and a half hours they learn so much. She reinforces what we teach in our curriculum and then goes far beyond it. She goes into much more depth but makes everything make so much sense to them, on a third-grade level.”

Donovan said that Pellico provokes the children to think about their bodies by asking pointed questions.

“Her big thing is she wants the kids to ask ‘why?'” she said. “She says, ‘I have grey hair. Why is my hair grey?’ Of course they answer, ‘Because you’re old.’ She explains the whole thing to them.”

Pellico has a stack of thank you notes from children in her office, describing what they enjoyed the most about her visit and what they learned.

“I will wear a helmet all the time and never smoke, and I will keep my body safe and healthy,” a student named Keri wrote.

Pellico said one of her favorite letters was written in the form of a report card. She scored very highly on her explanations of all of the body parts, although the students gave her an F on the liver, which she had forgotten to discuss.

Donovan said Wallingford is taking anatomy out of the third-grade curriculum, but she still plans to invite Pellico next year.

“I just hope she keeps doing this forever,” Donovan said.

Pellico’s program has grown over its 10-year life, and nursing students and physicians’ assistants have been eager to help out, she said.

Ann Richards NUR ’06 volunteered to help Pellico at a health fair at the beginning of this school year. She said working with Pellico was a fun way to start her time at the nursing school by getting involved with the community.

“I think stuff like this is really refreshing for the nursing students,” she said. “Stuff like this makes you take a step back and say, ‘This is why I’m doing what I’m doing.'”

Richards said that Pellico makes an impression on the students she encounters.

“If you were at Linda’s booth, you were definitely learning,” she said. “She’s kind of the ever-ready educator. There’s a reason why she’s considered one of the best professors.”

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