Warts And All

A Maryland Science Center exhibit on the body's gross natural products aims to turn kids on to learning.

October 05, 2002|By Mike Morris | Mike Morris,SUN STAFF

Hanging five feet above the ground, Ryan Keys, 13, is gripping a huge mole with his right hand while he props his left leg up on a gigantic wart.

"Hey Ryan, learning anything?" his mother Rosemary asks him. "How to climb scabs," Ryan replies as he continues scaling the Maryland Science Center's new "Zits, Blisters and Scabs" climbing wall.

Bouldering across skin blemishes at the center's new exhibit, Gross- ology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body, is just one of many entertaining ways kids are encouraged to learn very publicly about certain usually private bodily functions. The exhibit, which opened yesterday and runs through Jan. 1, uses about a dozen displays to explain the good, the bad and the downright ugly about runny noses, body odor, gas and more.

"See, this is what happens when you throw up," Kathy Rossell, 40, instructs her three children, ages 8, 10 and 12, during a recent preview of the 5,000-square-foot exhibit. But Rossell then cringes at the display, in which participants use wheels and pumps to activate a series of gears and lights that depict the vomiting process.

"These things are gross, but they're useful," says Bill Haas, director of the Grossology exhibit.

Rossell, who ate sandwiches on the ride up to the center from Northern Virginia, agrees, but recommended the exhibit as a morning activity. "It's kind of gross," she says, "especially after lunch."

Like other visitors, though, Rossell was impressed with the exhibit's hands-on approach. Organizers of Grossology say it's a science-in-disguise exhibit where both kids and adults can get answers to many of the slimy, oozy and stinky questions they have about the human body. "It's hard to get kids interested in things like skin and throwing up," she says.

Aside from blisters and vomit, the nose takes center stage at the exhibit.

Using a special pistol, visitors can shoot plastic "pollen" balls into two giant nostrils, dodge blasts of air when a 10-foot nose lets out a violent sneeze, or get a lesson on mucus taught by "Nigel Nose-It-All," a 9-foot-tall animatronic figure with a British accent.

"You swallow about one liter of snot each day," Nigel informs his audience while a "snot ball" drops out of his faucet-shaped nose.

There are also the options of playing a "Gas Attack" pinball game, sniffing and matching the four "grossest" body smells (mouth, armpit, anus and foot), and experimenting with an assortment of flatulence pipes at the "Toot Toot" display (where visitors learn that "toots can be loud or quiet depending on the gas pressure").

The exhibit, based on the best-selling book Grossology by science teacher Sylvia Branzei, aims to get kids interested in health issues and what's happening inside of their bodies in a way they can relate to. Branzei says she came up with the concept of grossology several years ago at home - while clipping her toenails.

"I was cleaning out the junk under my toenails, and thinking, `Kids like gross things. I can teach them a new kind of science - grossology,' " said Branzei, 44, who helped design the exhibit.

Originally from Michigan, Branzei now lives in Northern California, where she continues to teach. She's just released Grossology and You (Price Stern Sloan, $9.99), the fifth entry in a Grossology series that has sold more than 250,000 copies.

Along with teaching and writing, Branzei travels the country performing all things gross. She'll pay a visit to the science center's new exhibit on Nov. 2, where she will give three presentations that are sure to raise a few eyebrows.

"After all my presentations, I always have kids come up to me and say, `I want to be a grossol- ogist when I grow up,'" the author said. That reaction comes as no surprise to Branzei, who says teaching pupils how to make fake snot, blood and wounds has "always been a huge hit."

Although she wants visitors to understand the exhibit's underlying academic principles, which explain the chemistry, physiology and physics of the human body, Branzei hopes participants will walk away with one thing uppermost in their minds - that science is fun.

To complement Grossology, the IMAX Theater in the center will present The Human Body. Audiences of the film travel inside the ear, over the tongue, into the stomach, across the neural pathways and throughout the inner workings of the body - all against the backdrop of human beings going about everyday activities such as driving to work.

Science center officials say the movie, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, is a different, more mature approach to the human body than the Grossology exhibit, aimed at 12- to 15-year-olds.

One of those kids, Billy Copland, 14, is talking about belching one minute and warts the next while running from display to display one recent afternoon at the exhibit with his friends from Ellicott City.

"This is fun," Copland says while playing "Urine: The Game," which explores the role of the kidney in a virtual reality experience. "It's not disgusting at all."


What: Grossology: The (Impolite) Science of the Human Body

Where: Maryland Science Center, 601 Light St.

When: Through Jan. 1

Admission: Combination admission tickets, including all exhibits, an IMAX film and live demonstrations, are $15.50 for adults, $14.50 for seniors and $10.50 for children age 3 through 12. Children under 3 are admitted free.

Call: 410-685-5225 (or www.mdsci.org online)

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