Science

Interview: Totally Engrossed

December 27, 2004 5 min read
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Sylvia Branzei exemplifies grossness, and that’s OK with her. Actually, it’s more than OK—she’s built a career writing about feces, urine, vomit, and other malodorous topics most textbooks stay well upwind of. The former teacher has written five “grossology” books, among them Grossology and You and Grossology Begins at Home. She’s also inspired an album; launched two science-museum shows, including “Animal Grossology,” a traveling exhibition that debuted this fall at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago; and given dozens of workshops, all with the central theme of “grossology,” a term she coined a decade ago for what has been called “the gleeful study of bodily functions.”

Still, the 46-year-old, who has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology and a master’s in science education but signs e-mails “Her Grossness,” is quick to add that she’s not just being disgusting for its own sake. Branzei’s aim is to channel kids’ fixation with the “squishy gushiness” of science into a love of the field and to get them learning by teaching them in their own language.

Longtime educator Sylvia Branzei.

Teacher Magazine recently spoke with Branzei about the pedagogy of disgust and what, if anything, grosses her out.

Q: I have to ask how you got interested in grossness.

A: I used to teach junior high school science, so it kind of comes with the ticket. It seems that when you’re teaching children, if you’ve thought of something or started teaching them about something that was a little bizarre or a little gross, they were more and more interested in it. However, grossology didn’t come directly from that. It actually occurred in an epiphany.

Q: Tell me about the epiphany.

A: I was home cutting my toenails, and I started thinking about the gunk underneath [them]. And then I thought, Well, so, yeah, you should be able to figure out what that stuff is. So I started thinking about what made up the gunk, and then it hit me. I went, “Whoa—kids love gross stuff. I want to teach them science, so I’ll just invent a new science, and I’ll call it ‘grossology.’ ” It just truly hit me in one fell swoop.

Q: What was the first gross thing you did in class?

A: We did burps. I didn’t go over the top right away.

Q: No demonstrations?

A: Of course, we did things like “How can you make yourself burp?” Balloon burps—you know, those kinds of things.

Q: Did you always have a latent interest in grossness?

A: What I’m into is teaching. So when I realized that gross stuff was a hook, I thought, Well, this is the perfect way to hook children into learning. Given my background in microbiology, I’m not appalled easily. So it probably took a combination of the fact that I had a stronger stomach than most combined with my love of teaching children.

Q: Why do you think kids respond to grossness?

A: The primary reason I think that children like gross stuff is because most of it is taboo. And once children find out, “Oh, this is a taboo subject,” they want to know even more about it. The second part is that children, like all humans, like to play with emotions, and human beings are the one animal that experiences disgust. ... So you can have that kind of joy in the emotional response: “Ew, I get to feel disgusted.” And then most gross stuff, or many things I write about in my grossology books, are commonplace. They’re things that occur in your daily life—pooping and peeing, barfing, zits—but nobody wants to talk about it.

Q: Can they use that fascination to really learn, or are they just entertained by it?

A: No, they definitely learn it. It’s almost mind-blowing. I tried out everything in the [grossology] books first in the classroom and found out that because the kids were interested in, let’s say, barf, by the time they got done, they could tell you all about the anatomy behind barfing. [This past year,] I got an e-mail from a high school freshman—a former student—telling me, “Oh my gosh, I now understand what you were trying to do.” Because when she got into high school biology, she said everything was coming to her very easily because she had this background she got from grossology and at the time didn’t realize how much she was actually learning.

Q: What kind of feedback have you gotten from teachers?

A: They really like it because the kids are excited. Children who hated science now enjoy science. And they also like the activities because they are quite easy and inexpensive, which comes from my background working in schools with no money. And I get a lot of nice feedback from teachers with reluctant readers. Teachers have come up and said, “I had several children who hated reading, and then when I brought in the grossology book, those children began to read, and now they’re reading everything.”

Q: What was it that made you decide to do this full time rather than teaching?

A: I’m on the road so much that I had to keep hiring substitutes. I just could see that [my travel schedule] was building, and as teachers know, every time you hire a sub, you lose a day of good learning, and then you lose another day of good learning when you return because you have to clean up all the stuff that the sub missed or the kids didn’t get, and I just felt like it wasn’t fair to the children.

Q: Do you think you might go back to teaching at some point?

A: I probably will. You begin to miss it after a while, it kind of gets in your blood. I write information for children, and I feel like, “OK, I really need that input from the kids.” I don’t know how much you’ve read children’s authors, but in some of them I feel like it’s an adult talking [down] to kids, and kids know that, and they don’t like that. Whereas in other cases, you don’t get that feeling, and I never want to end up like that, where they’re like, “This is some lady who’s trying to be kidlike.”

Q: So what you’re trying to tell me is that you are a kid.

A: Yeah, yeah. I’m stuck at about 12. That’s why I love to teach junior high so much.

Q: What’s the grossest thing you’ve ever run across?

A: There are some native people who suck the snot from babies’ noses when they have a runny nose. The first time I read that, I actually gagged. I thought, Ew, I can’t handle that. I have this little problem with loogies.

Q: Wow, I would have thought that you’d be beyond all gross-outness—that it was just completely impossible to gross you out.

A: No. Loogies, still to this day.

— Scott J. Cech

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