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BODY WATCH : Internal Affairs : Author's Biology Lessons Come With a Twist of Entertainment

October 04, 1994|KATHLEEN DOHENY / SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

So your ever-curious offspring are asking questions about anatomy that you don't feel quite equipped to answer?

Not just the standard "Where do babies come from?" query, but much harder stuff: What's inside a cell? How strong is hair? Why does your breath look like steam on a cold morning?

English author and biologist Steve Parker, 41, who's also the father of two boys, has heard such questions before. Better yet, he provides the answers in his new book, "How the Body Works: 100 Ways Parents and Kids Can Share the Miracle of the Human Body" (Reader's Digest Books).

This is no stuffy textbook. It's meant as a family reference book and a classroom supplement for youngsters 9 to 15, Parker says. Each of the 10 sections contains basic information on the skin, the muscles, the skeleton and other body parts. But all those facts, figures and theories are brought home by 100 experiments and projects that make learning about the body truly hands-on.

For instance, a section on the body's reactions during activities such as driving and sports explains that each reaction involves the same process: a sense such as the eyes flashes nerve signals to your brain, which makes a decision and sends signals to the muscles about what to do.

Then, readers are invited to stand in a circle holding hands. As one person squeezes the next person's hand, the timer keeps track of how long it takes to go around the circle. Next the kids find out if practice decreases reaction times.

During a telephone interview from his home in tiny Southolt, England, Parker talked about how the book came together over the past two years and what he wanted to accomplish.

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Question: What do you hope kids will learn from this book?

Answer: I hope they learn something about how they work inside and that they learn to value themselves. I hope they learn that they are robust in some ways and delicate in others. And that they have potential.

We also try to get across the fact that the human body, because we live in it every day, becomes so familiar that we might cease to wonder about it or appreciate it. We wanted to get people to sort of step outside their own bodies, look at them more objectively and find out what a marvelous piece of equipment it is and how you really should be taking some care of it.

Q: How did you research the book and what helped you to decide which information to include?

A: I used to be an editor of medical books and I follow the major research journals. When information gets into Scientific American, for instance, it's fairly molded and accepted. Although we tried to be up-to-date, we didn't include theories (that might soon fall out of favor).

Q: Did you field test the projects and experiments?

A: Yes, once in-house, to make sure they worked. And also in a couple of the schools around London. We tried to gather a large group of kids.

Q: Which are your favorite experiments?

A: I like the one where we make a model eardrum. The kids really like the reaction-time experiment. They were trying to outdo each other. It tuned into a competition.

Q: Were there some experiments that didn't make it?

A: There were lots of them we wanted to do but dropped because they were too hazardous. We wanted to do (one) on mixing bleach to show how chemical reactions happen, but it was thought to be too risky for unsupervised youngsters.

Q: Did your family help with the book?

A: They were all involved. My boys--Alan, 13, and Martin, 9--made several of the models at home including the eardrum--although it was not the model that was eventually used. My wife, Jane, is a biochemist and helped on the practical side, particularly the digestion section. Our two dogs, both Labradors, didn't help but benefited indirectly. We were exploring some experiments on bones. We got bones (from the butcher) and ended up not including those . . . so our dogs got the bones in the end.

Q: How do you hope to compete with more high-tech information sources? For instance, a CD-ROM program called Mayo Clinic AnnaTommy, scheduled for release later this year by IVI Publishing, is targeted to children ages 8-12 who are curious about the body's system and organs.

A: I'm sure a lot of our experiments will end up on CD-ROM too. But CD-ROM is not quite as common, at least in England, as basic computers. Most schools have computers, but CD-ROM is still quite rare. And I think CD-ROM and books complement each other.

Q: Do you think kids will read this book straight through or pick and choose?

A: I don't think anyone, even me, has read it all the way through in one go. We hope, for example, that it will be useful at school in human biology classes. Also, people can just dip in. If a teacher is doing something about nutrition, for instance, he or she can look at the section on digestion.

Plus we have organized lots of the projects for groups. They can come together in a classroom, club or at home with the whole family.

Q: Or if someone has a friend over to spend the night?

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