The Body on Stage
The Science Center turns up the volume on a topic that gets everybody thinking: the inner workings of us.
By Amy Whipple
Clad in a bright-red lab coat, a presenter stands on the raised stage of Carnegie Science Center’s new liveaction theater, BodyStage. “When you eat a bite of your favorite food,” she asks, “do you put it in your ear?” She points to the side of her head as she receives a wave of noooos. “No?!,” she questions, seemingly surprised.
Presenter Jill Rible wows a BodyStage crowd with a frog used in a show that highlights surgical skills.
She works the late-morning crowd of mostly young families through a series of questions about where (mouth) and how (lips, tongue, teeth) we take in our food. Then, with a quick click of a button, a famous picture of Albert Einstein appears on two flat-screens hanging from the ceiling.
“I would like everyone to follow Mr. Einstein’s example and stick out your tongues,” she enthusiastically directs. “Even the grown-ups!” A pair of school-aged brothers eye each other, debating on whether or not to participate; they do, of course. “I would like you to look at the person next to you and look at their tongues,” she continues, drawing out the last word, deep and ominous, plunging the audience into the microscopic world of taste buds— those teeny tiny balloons hosted by the bumps (papillae) that circle the tongue— and other senses used in order to savor the food we eat.
This past spring, the Science Center retired its popular Kitchen Theater, renovating the third-floor space from top to bottom to make way for the health-focused, techsavvy BodyStage, presented by Allegheny Health Network. Opened on July 3, BodyStage still features the always-popular food demonstrations, but adds the whiz-bang of science-meets-entertainment on topics that do the body good: diet, nutrition, and exercise; basic anatomy; and the latest in medical technology.
The Tasteful Tidbits show—all about the anatomy of taste—is just one of three new initial BodyStage live-action productions that introduce visitors of all ages to the science behind what makes up the human body, how it works, and how we fix it when something goes wrong.
“There are so many high-tech, cutting-edge things going on in our region. We want to tap into that.”
- Amanda Iwaniec, manager of the science center's demonstration theaters
“Many of the elements that people loved about Kitchen Theater are still included,” says Amanda Iwaniec, manager of the Science Center’s demonstration theaters, “but now we’re able to expand and talk more about how the body works, which is really fascinating stuff.” Shows that are continuing from Kitchen Theater—fan favorites like Taste the Rainbow, Grain-iacs!, and Say Cheese!—now highlight how and why healthy food choices influence the body.
Also new: The theater’s entrance opens directly into the Science Center’s exhibit galleries, allowing the theater team to extend its reach by doing demonstrations to larger crowds in the galleries.
By its very nature, Tasteful Tidbits is full of colorful and flavorful experiments. “I will need five brave souls who would be happy to donate their taste buds to science,” the presenter says as she looks out into the audience for the first fidgets of a willing volunteer. She then warns, “I may or may not give you something gross.” The five volunteers make their way to the stage and each receives a distinctive Dixie cup of mystery substance.
The audience counts down from 10—loud like on New Year’s Eve—as the volunteers swish their substances around their mouths. At zero, they spit enthusiastically into a trashcan and four of the five go straight for a cup of water to rinse out their mouths. The mysteries? Sugar water (sweet), salt water (salty), lemon juice (sour), vanilla extract (bitter), and soy sauce (umami or savory). When prompted, each volunteer then takes a turn and, with an assigned color in hand, fills in a giant picture of a tongue only where they tasted their mystery beverage, illustrating that we taste on the tip, side, and the back of our tongues.
Another new show directed at high schoolers, Scanning, Scopes, and Surgery, completely changes gears by providing a look inside the body by way of modern technology. By highlighting CT scans, ultrasounds, and even the tools of today’s virtual surgeries, the hope is it will inspire students to consider futures in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers. And they’ll certainly react—in one way or another—to what comes at the end of this show: a frog dissection to demonstrate intricate surgical skills.
The future of BodyStage is fairly wide open, notes Iwaniec. Upon learning that a horse’s small intestine is 70 feet long—about 50 feet longer than that of a human—Iwaniec says she would love to have a replica of both that visitors could stretch across the room to give a tangible experience of just how much can be packed into our guts.
With diet and anatomy programs underway, Iwaniec and team have started brainstorming ideas around weight, exercise, and diabetes. These programs could include more traditional demonstrations as well as activities such as yoga. One thing is for certain: The Science Center will take full advantage of its unique partnership with the Allegheny Health Network by bringing in local nutrition and medical experts.
BodyStage is phase one of BodyTech, a larger Science Center project that will also include a major permanent exhibit, BodyWorks, slated to open in 2016 and designed to bring to life the mostly hidden world of the biology, chemistry, and structural engineering of our brains, blood, organs, and bones. A year later, the Science Center plans to introduce a health-care simulation center and career lab dubbed BodyLab.
It’s all part of the Science Center’s strategic plan, which focuses on the fascinating science behind everybody’s favorite subject: themselves. All told, BodyTech will encompass the entire third floor of the Science Center, validation of the city’s innovative and ever-growing medical and technological communities.
“There are so many high-tech, cutting-edge things going on in our region,” says Iwaniec. “We want to tap into that.”