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Want to build a better monster? Then use this manual

By

Margaret Coulombe

Monsters are springing up online all over the Phoenix metro area – possibly 16,000 of them – real Halloween horrors: furred, fanged, feathered and altogether fun.

Which culprits are in control of this Frankenstein frenzy? Children – if they have a copy of “The Monster Manual,” available online at http://askabiologist.asu.edu/monster-manual.

The manual is the latest of a series of activities created over the past three years with funding from the National Institutes of Health. The funding and manual were developed by Laura Martin, a developmental psychologist and senior director of educational services at the Arizona Science Center, with help from a design team, the graphic wizardry of Arizona State University’s Charles Kazilek and artist Sabine Deviche, and science advisor Adrienne Scheck with Barrow Neurological Institute in St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

The kid-vetted manual, hosted on “Ask A Biologist,” a children’s website sponsored by ASU’s School of Sciences, is continued proof that learning science in Arizona can be just plain fun.

Clicking on the “Build a Monster” button opens a page with a series of tri-colored dots, a set of instructions much like a genetic code, for the makeup of every monster.

Will it be seven-eyed, have bird legs or be Day-Glo orange? Children find out as they decode each segment using a colored key. Their monster grows horns, sprouts wings, trait by trait, right before their eyes. They can even give it a name.

“Monster building allows kids to experience combinatorics, the underlying combinations that make up a genome,” Martin says. “Not genetics, per se, but showing kids that instructions make up your body in combinations. And because they are concrete thinkers, we use colors rather than the letters ATCG used in labeling the real genetic code.”

Martin’s grant project, titled “Body Depot,” arose from the thought that a hardware store metaphor might help people visualize things in the body. “It’s a good way to introduce ideas that are new in biomedical research and biology, pave the way for kid’s future understanding and offers new ways think about the world,” she says.

Monster manual joins Body Depot’s “Viral Attack,” and “Busy Bones,” which offer hands-on science demonstrations, lectures and even theater at the science center – and comic books, web games, stories and other activities online on the ASU School of Life Science’s online science portal for children: “Ask A Biologist.”
 
The Arizona Science Center’s partnership with “Ask A Biologist” is a natural one, says Kazilek, the site’s developer. More than a million local and international children, parents, teachers and lifelong learners each year visit the website, looking for activities like these that excite and put learning in kid’s hands.

Kazilek and Deviche are part of the large and diverse Body Depot design team assembled by Martin. The collective includes museum staff, scientists, teachers, medical students, high school students, community volunteers, artists, ASU scientists and other researchers. The group partners with urban, rural and Native American school districts, such as Creighton, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, Gila and Safford, who evaluate engagement and ease of use of the activities, changes in knowledge and comprehension, awareness about scientific research, and desire to learn more, says Martin.

Monster’s popularity could be climaxed by hands-on and online activities for “Venom,” which debut next year. Venom creatively examines the process of protein folding in scorpion venom, a process that occurs at the nanoscale. While it is a dimension that is challenging to explain, Martin says, scientists and doctors are already working at the nano-level to customize medicines, detect disease and engineer materials.

What do the kids think? Team members say that Body Depot activities have been very popular.

“Kids love it,” says design team member and ASU professor Doug Lake. His son’s Cub Scout den took to the science center’s theater stage to act out the play “Viral Attack.” The boys put on costumes to become immune cells, macrophages and grapple with and destroy a virus.

“If you participate in something then you are better able to grasp, literally in this case, complex and emerging trends in biomedical research and discovery,” Lake says. “Things that will have significant impact on our kids’ futures.”

Like monster-building, which offers building blocks for understanding pattern-building, bioinformatics and combinatorics, and which will leave many more than one colorful Quacktopus haunting the Phoenix area, seven eyes and all.

To visit the Body Depot online: http://askabiologist.asu.edu/body-depot