Grossology: The (Impolite)
Science of the Human Body
Carnegie Science Center Takes a Kid's View of
the Body's Mysterious Functions
September 28, 2002 to March 23, 2003
By M.A. Jackson
Being polite can be SO much
work...remembering to chew with your mouth closed, not to interrupt, to say
"please" and "excuse me." And let's not even try to
figure out which fork is the right one to use for salad.
Being impolite, on the other hand, is
the most natural thing in the world...the body produces various sights,
sounds and smells without any conscious effort. But from childhood we're
told not to contemplate those "impolite" body functions and
never, ever discuss them in public.
But a few years ago, science teacher
Sylvia Branzei realized those "disgusting" bodily functions are a
great way to teach children about science. Branzei turned her idea into the
popular book Grossology. The new Carnegie Science Center exhibit, Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of
the Human Body, sponsored by Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, uses
15-plus displays based on Branzei's book to explain every repulsive bodily
function--from sneezing and halitosis to pimples and vomit--in the
silliest, most revolting ways possible.
Although aimed at children in grades 6 through
9, Grossology has proved so
popular with all ages it has broken attendance records at almost every
science center that has hosted it.
Branzei, who came up with the Grossology idea while pondering her
toenail clippings, once told an interviewer: "This is science in
disguise. If we teach students in their own words, they'll understand
better and actually learn something. Too often, science hides behind big
words." In fact, her book
explains bodily functions so well, and kids enjoy it so much, that many
schools now use Grossology as a textbook to teach human anatomy, natural
sciences, and microbiology.
the Body's Language
And who better understands the best way
to talk to kids about their bodies than physicians from Children's Hospital
of Pittsburgh? "The wonderful
thing about the Grossology exhibit
is it focuses on things children can relate to personally and in terms they
can easily grasp," says Dr. Sergio Buzzini, a pediatrician at the
hospital. "Every child sneezes,
has flatulence, throws up, and poops--and is curious why. But because
bodily functions are so rarely discussed, children find them mysterious and
intriguing. Answering questions about the body in a fun, humorous manner,
not only removes the mystique, it encourages children to explore topics
such as chemistry and biology further. And by applying what they've learned
directly to themselves, they'll retain the information longer."
So what can all this impolite stuff
teach us? Well, much of it plays an important role in keeping bodies
healthy and announcing problems. For instance a scab protects cuts from
becoming infected (that's why you should never pick one off!), green or
yellow mucus indicates a bacterial infection, and vomiting is the
body's way to get rid of things it
thinks might be dangerous.
"Children are fascinated to learn
how their bodies constantly protect them and how every 'gross' thing
related to the body has a reason and purpose," says Dr. Pamela Murray,
chief of Adolescent Medicine Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. "When
they understand why, it suddenly doesn't seem so disgusting."
Grossology explains functions of the body in
simple and humorous terms on the information panels accompanying every
component. Characters such as Burp Man and Nigel Nose-it-All reveal facts
about acid indigestion and allergies, sneezes, and runny noses
respectively. The Climbing Wall focuses on the features of the
skin--pimples, warts, and moles that are large enough for kids to
climb--while Gas Attack provides the skinny on which foods create the most
gas. GI Slide is a 3-D model of the gastrointestinal system--from mouth to
intestines--that children can climb through. And let's not forget the Vomit
Center (the physical process behind the ghastly deed), Urine: The Game (how
kidneys remove waste from the blood), and YU Stink (match four rude smells
to the body part that produced them).
What Carnegie Science
As with all its major exhibits, Carnegie
Science Center staff have created some unique programs to complement Grossology. The Kitchen Theater
presents Dr. Payne's Hideous Brain,
where a brain-shaped Jell-O dessert is concocted using coconut for neurons
and string licorice as arteries. How did they come up with such an original
idea? Brainstorming, of course!
For the little ones (pre-kindergarten to
third grade), there's How Animals
Smell--no, not K-9 BO--but antennae, tongues, noses, and the like. And
the Omnimax Theater is showing a movie titled "The Human Body."
Costumed presenters around the Grossology exhibit area further
enhance the fun by performing games and activities--such as using silly
string to demonstrate how far a sneeze can travel and getting visitors to
length of their intestines by extracting
a very long string from the presenter's pocket.
SportsWorks has gotten into the action with body-themed exhibits on
balance, optical illusions, and how center of gravity works. "We are
focusing all our interactions with visitors on the theme of the human
body," says Lynn Parrucci, Carnegie Science Center education
coordinator. Parrucci and program exhibit coordinator Steve Kovac are two
of the many Carnegie Science Center employees who think up this type of
additional programming for traveling exhibits such as Grossology. Producing these enhancements, however, takes time,
ingenuity, and a lot of teamwork.
Approximately six months before the
exhibit arrived, staff members received background information about the
exhibit--including the display's text panels--which everyone involved
memorizes. After all, presenters must be prepared for those
"why-is-there-air" stumpers kids love to ask. Then the topic is
thoroughly researched and new technology examined to see if it can be used
in other areas of the science center--UPMC
SportsWorks, Kitchen Theater, Works Theater--to further augment the
exhibit. When feasible, a few employees will visit the exhibit's current
host city for a preview. "It's very important to see the
exhibit," says Kovac. "There's only so much information we
can get without seeing it in
action." Parrucci, Kovac, and director of education Ron Baillie
traveled to Buffalo's science center this past spring to preview Grossology. Parrucci found it
"sheer madness...but in a good way."
Once the staff is up on the topic, they
begin designing their own programs, demonstrations, special events,
interactions, and theater shows.
"We get as wide a variety of people together in development as
possible," says Parrucci. "That includes employees with science,
education, communications, and even theater backgrounds."
Theater backgrounds are especially
useful for the costumed presenters who work the exhibit area crowds with
skits and "pocket demonstrations"--a game using small props that
can be pulled from the performer's pocket. Revealing interesting facts
related to the exhibit's topic, pocket demonstrations and other floor
"shows" at Grossology include
a booth where fake wounds are applied to willing visitors (a more morbid
version of face painting) to reveal important lessons about blood and
Parrucci says these personal touches and
exhibit additions, "welcome people and make them feel
comfortable." In addition, these attractions prevent people in long
lines from getting bored, prompt the intimidated
into interacting, start questions flowing, help interpret the exhibit's
context, and teach interesting facts not found in the actual exhibit.
While Carnegie Science Center employees
work hard to enhance every rental exhibit with their own special touch,
some exhibit topics are more fun and get more creative juice flowing than
others. Grossology is a case
in point. "Everyone involved loved
working on it," says Parrucci. Employees were given free reign to be
impolite and totally politically incorrect--and got paid for it. Who wouldn't love that?
At the Science Center, costumed presenters like "Her
Grossness" stay completely in character while introducing popular exhibits --a typical
sign of Carnegie Science Center's extra effort in making exhibits fun.
Well, hello there! I am Her Grossness.
Please don't let the name put you off. After all, to paraphrase
Shakespeare, "What's in a name? Flatulence by any other name would
smell as bad."
Oh, excuse me, that was just RUDE. But
that type of behavior happens when you're burdened with a moniker such as
mine. There is an up side though--my name was the reason those charming
people at Carnegie Science Center requested I emcee their newest exhibit, Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of
the Human Body. Of course, when they asked me, I was SHOCKED. I mean,
my name might be Her Grossness, but that doesn't mean I'm an expert on
burping, belching, and boogers, does it? But then, they told me how much
they were going to pay me...and, honey, I became an expert.
I find Grossology, with its explanations about how and why the body
does the nasty things it does, truly fascinating. I just wish it had enlightened me as to why those
things happen when you have a date with a charming, well-to-do
proctologist...oops, story for another time. But I'll tell you ALL about it
when I see you at Grossology!