Sometimes it's stinky. Sometimes it's crusty. Sometimes it's slimy. But hey, it's your body," cracks Sylvia Branzei on the home page of her website www.grossology.org. Grossology, subject of a zippy interactive exhibition just opened at the Science Museum (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk), is her triumphant take on the science of the human body.
Quite the reverse of all those timid science teachers who used to tiptoe around bodily functions, Sylvia Branzei is a high-school science teacher on whom a great light broke one day when she was cutting her toenails. She thought: "I can figure out what this yucky stuff is beneath my nails because I am a scientist. Why don't I tap into all that intense curiosity which children have about their own bodies and make them scientists, too?"
And so, from communion with toe jam, Grossology was born. Three best-selling children's science books later, the Grossology touring exhibition hits London with all the messy, sticky, smelly facts that can be turned into top-class animatronics (www.grossology tour.com). For instance, did you know your nostrils take turns inhaling? You breathe through one nostril for three to four hours and then switch to the other one. Or that you produce a litre of snot a day (even without a cold). And a cross-cultural tip: in Korea a fart is called a "bon-goo". Grossology goes all the way up to A-level biology but perhaps is most at home in key stages 2 and 3. Children aged eight to 14 already view human beings, particularly older ones, with fascinated disgust. They are the perfect audience for Sylvia Branzei's 10 Reasons Why You Shouldn't Kiss Anyone Except Your Dog.
More than 100,000,000 microscopic critters live in a human mouth. Bacteria hang out there. Fungus grows in the oral cavity. Mouths have viruses that may cause disease. The white blood cells from another person's spit will attack in your mouth. Little leftover bits of food will go into your mouth. Everyone's spit contains a little bit of urine from their glands. Yellow teeth tartar is sickening. Because the nose drips into the back of the mouth, you may get nose mucus mixed with a kiss. Dog mouths contain many enzymes for fighting infections. Stick to kissing your dog.
Seriously, though, says Sylvia Branzei, if you tell pupils to get out their books and study the excretory system, there will be yawns. But if you say:
"Raise your hand if you want to learn about pee, poo, and sweat", hands shoot up. That's teaching the Grossology way. Grossology bypasses the problem of scientific literacy. Although scientific terms are introduced, common words - really common words - explain concepts. Thus the pupil can grasp information about a process, eg the immune system, without having to learn vocabulary at the same time. Scabs and blisters are easier to understand than lymph glands and T-cells. With the information understood, terminology can follow.
The Grossology series is full of simple experiments like this: Make a belch model. You will need vinegar, baking soda, medium or large balloon, funnel. What to do (if you do this over a sink, there is much less to clean up at the end): the balloon is your stomach. Pour a small amount of vinegar into the bottom of the balloon. Use the funnel to add baking soda to the balloon stomach. Pinch the balloon closed at the neck with your fingers; this is your oesophagus. Watch your balloon stomach expand with gas. Unpinch the oesophagus to release gas, or a burp. Practise the pinch release to see if you can make the belch model sound like a real burp.
Grossology by Sylvia Branzei, illustrated by Jack Keely, Puffin, pound;3.99Grossology is a charged exhibition at the Science Museum, London SW7. To book an educational visit Tel: 020 7942 4777 or visit www.sciencemuseum.org.ukeducation