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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.


Understanding 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 Center Adds


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 guess the

length of their intestines by extracting a very long string from the presenter's pocket.


Even UPMC 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 scabs.


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?



Her Grossness Says…                                                 


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!        




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