The way of all flesh

28th June 1996 at 01:00
Investigating the human body should be more than just an excuse to look up rude words, says Roger Frost. Why is it that when you give a dictionary to a teenager he goes straight to the naughty words? Call it puerile dictionary syndrome but, whatever it is, it affects a big chunk of the school population. As a bit of research, just give a pupil a CD-Rom about the human body and count how few clicks it takes to find the reproductive system. It is amazing, this human curiosity, and maybe it's a reason why the body topic is spot-on for child-centred learning.

There is such a lot of body software about. So much that I set up the computers, and let a whole science department loose on them. I'd like to thank everyone for their help, and also for the surprise discovery that teachers, as well as pupils, share the puerile dictionary syndrome, since, with no encouragement, everyone went straight for the gonads.

Apart from those essential genitals, what makes a great body CD-Rom? A virtual reality tour? A book with sounds and film? A cleverly cross-referenced encyclopedia?

We found something of a mix in Bodyworks, the long-time best-seller now in its fifth version. It's an encyclopedia that shows you all the body systems, labels every part, and speaks those medical tongue-twisters, like brachioradialis. You can look at the organs, and spin the body round to see what's where. You can watch a baby being born or make a breath-taking journey through the heart. And very usefully, there are lots of diagrams and text which you can drop into your word processor to make a worksheet. It's not all you need but it's good value.

Mindscape's How Your Body Works is more of a home medical guide. There are mini-lectures about staying healthy, and case studies of people with various complaints. It has some excellent animation showing fertilisation and blood circulating, as well as an overview of each body system. But the penalty for this multimedia experience is that there are not enough basic facts for schools.

For medical illustration at its best and most detailed, see ADAM Essentials. Here you can click away layers of the body and see lymph, nerves, and blood vessels as you go. Any name you fancy you can click on and hear spoken. Using animation, it explains how the nerves, the heart and the joints work, and for fun there are a few puzzles - hard ones - where you put body pieces together.

A first look at ADAM, with its 200 body layers and weighty teaching guide, will impress. But never mind the graphics, the Pounds 250 price will force a more careful second look.

So many programs claim to offer fun and learning, and Micro-soft's Magic Bus Explores the Human Body isn't far off that. As in the Magic Bus book and television cartoon, a teacher takes the class on a bizarre field trip through the body. In this CD-Rom you can steer your way to places such as the heart, kidneys or brain. There are experiments to do - like drop food in the stomach and see it fizz, and nice touches where white cells take on germs, or enzymes attack food and say "Gotcha!" Fun aside, this gives a good feel for what happens in the body, as you see the bus floating in the blood or the stomach's messy liquid. But while children can play and learn for hours at home, I worry that this will eat into precious school time.

At the other end of the fun spectrum is Emme's The Human Body. It's more an illustrated glossary than anything novel. You hear definitions and descriptions of the body parts and will find what's what, but its diagrams in red, blue and green will puzzle some. Even more puzzling is the language.

For example, to say that "the vagina is the organ that houses the penis during coitus" is an odd way of seeing things. Medical students, or curious extra terrestrials, might find this useful, but there's more anatomy here than you need for school. Surprisingly, Anglia's Understanding the Body, is the only title produced for schools. This shows in the light reading load and the illustrated lessons on cells, digestion, genetics and so on. It also shows in how easy it is to copy the material for project work. And being full of diagrams without labels, you could use it to create pupil exercises.

Dorling Kindersley's The Ultimate Human Body doesn't make pillaging of its material as easy. In this glossy production you click on organs to read about them, and you're given "see also" buttons you'll be tempted to explore. There is good animation showing how the blood flows or how we breathe. As it succeeds in being interesting, and the coverage elsewhere is patchy, it is hard to beat for casual browsing.

But if you haven't got a CD-Rom machine there are still some excellent programs on floppy disc - both BodyMapper and Bodywise can hold their own against many CD-Roms. If that says anything, it's that occasionally classroom needs meet teacher and designer and something valuable is born. And that, for once, is nothing to do with reproduction and naughty bits.

* How Your Body Works PC, 14 plus, Pounds 30. From usual mail order outlets * ADAM Essentials PCApple, 16 plus, Pounds 250 by Churchill Livingston. Available from usual outlets * BodyMapper PCMacAcorn - floppy disc, 7-12, Pounds 40. From TAG Developments, 19 High Street, Gravesend, Kent, DA11 0BA. Tel: 0800 591262 * Bodywise Acorn - floppy disc, 10-14, Pounds 45. From Sherston Software, Angel House, High Street, Sherston, Malmesbury, Wilts SN16 0LH.Tel: 01666 840433 * The Ultimate Human Body PCApple, 11-15, Pounds 52; * The Human Body PC, 17 plus, Pounds 30; * Bodyworks PCApple, 13 plus, Pounds 40; * Understanding the Body PCAppleAcorn, 11-14, Pounds 40; * Magic Bus Explores the Human Body PC, 6-11, Pounds 30; all from AVP, School Hill Centre, Chepstow, Gwent, NP6 5PH. Tel: 01291 625439

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