What do you learn when you become a “Pharmacist for a Day?”

If you are an elementary school student, you will learn:

  • Medicine can often look like candy (leading to potentially disastrous consequences);
  • What it means to “compound” a medication (Get that mortar and pestle ready.); and
  • How it feels to visit a medical campus and don a white health care professional’s coat. (It feels very exciting.)

    Fourth-graders from Aurora Public Schools in their lab coats
    Fourth-graders from Aurora Public Schools become pharmacists for a day

“We can make medicine!”

During the first week of January, nearly 350 fourth-graders from Aurora Public Schools visited the Skaggs School of Pharmacy at the Anschutz Medical Campus over the course of three days, spending a morning learning some of the skills they would need to become future pharmacists.

The students were taught by more than a dozen first- and second-year pharmacy student volunteers, all members of the Student National Pharmaceutical Association (SNPhA).

“The Anschutz Medical Campus sits in the middle of a community where we can really have an impact,” said Alice Hearn, second-year pharmacy student and one of the student leaders. “We are promoting pharmacy and medicine and planting the idea that these students can go beyond high school and pursue these fields as a career.”

Pharmacist for a day
Fourth-graders from Aurora Public Schools were eager to learn from Skaggs School of Pharmacy students.

From the very first minutes of each class, the students paid close attention, with hands shooting into the air as the pharmacy student leaders tossed questions out to the room. “What is a measurement? What can you measure?”

“Water and food,” the students called out. Then came the day’s obvious answer: “Medicine!”

The pharmacy students raised more questions: “Why is it important to measure the exact amount of medicine?” “What if you don’t get enough medicine?” “What is the best way to deliver medicine?”

Finally, students tackled a real-life problem, introducing them to one of the skills they would need as a pharmacist: “If fictitious patient ‘Felonius Gru’ needs to take one pill twice a day for two days and one pill once a day for three days, how many total pills would he take?”

“Seven,” shouted one quick-thinking student.

Pharmacist for a day
The fourth graders mixed compounds for their patients.

When the pharmacy students introduced the next subject—compounding—students were not as eager to raise their hands. This was new territory, until the class leaders explained that compounding meant mixing individualized medication for a patient.

The lesson hit home when each fourth-grader picked up a mortar and pestle and was able to grind a tablet into powder and mix it into their very own “rash-away cream.” The room filled with a symphony of sounds as dozens of different pestles vigorously hit mortars, and students discovered that their compounded “rash-away cream” came in multiple different colors.

“I made mine blue!” said Michael Del Real, a student at Montview Elementary. “We can make medicine. That is pretty cool!”

Next question from the students: “Do we get to keep it?” The answer, to their delight, was yes.

“This gives our students the opportunity to see a world they have never experienced,” said Julie Granchelli, fourth-grade teacher at Montview Elementary. “They meet real university students and say to themselves ‘Hey, I can belong here too!’”

“We want to see your school”

A Skaggs School of Pharmacy faculty member was interested in the concept of “service-learning”—learning by providing a service to the community—and the Pharmacist for a Day program was born.

Catherine Jarvis, PharmDIn 1999, Associate Dean for Student and Professional Affairs Catherine Jarvis, PharmD, decided to take the school’s curriculum off campus, transporting pharmacy students out of the didactic setting and into elementary school classrooms.

“So much can be learned outside the classroom,” Jarvis said. “Pharmacy students learn by engaging with all different types of people.”

During weekly visits to the elementary schools, pharmacy students talked to young students about pharmacy-related topics, until one day, the elementary students turned the tables.

“They suddenly said, ‘We want to see your school!’” Jarvis said. So she went to a costume store, bought 80 tiny white lab coats and invited the elementary students to spend a day at the former 9th Avenue health sciences campus.

The activity continued with the move to the Anschutz Medical Campus, as students continue to bring curiosity, exude energy and pose lots of unexpected questions for the pharmacy students who are teaching them.

“Our students have to maintain their professionalism and think on their feet when someone says something that is unexpected,” Jarvis said. “That is the basic concept of service-learning. Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a learner.”

“We may never see the impact”

Students put their mortars and pestles aside for the second half of the morning, but they were no less attentive when the subject changed to a discussion of poisons. Once again, the pharmacy students tossed questions out to the room:

  • “Are glow sticks poisonous?” (No, but they taste awful.)
  • “What is the most toxic naturally occurring substance on earth?” (botulinum toxin—just two grams could kill one billion people)
  • “What is the most poisonous animal in the world?” (the poison arrow frog)

But students were most interested in a tray with divided sections, filled with what looked like multiple different kinds of candy. In fact, half the tray was filled with non-candy items which, if eaten in excess, could be very harmful to a 10-year-old. Turns out that Smarties ® and the antacid Tums® look just alike. M&M’s ® are indistinguishable from the supplement ferrous gluconate, a type of iron. And try telling the difference between the laxative Ex-Lax® and chocolate—it’s impossible.

“I didn’t know that pills can look like candy,” said fourth-grader Emily Munoz.

“Never assume that just because something looks like candy, it is,” warned one of the pharmacy students.

By the end of the morning, dozens of fourth-graders donned white coats and proudly posed for photos with certificates testifying to their pharmaceutical accomplishments. For some, it may have been a life-changing few hours. Even for the white-coated pharmacy students, the experience could change the course of a career.

“We may never see the impact of what we did today,” said Hearn. “But working with these students makes me want to work in a community where you can be accessible and ultimately have more impact on the lives of people you are helping.”