Overcoming the Gross Factor


“Do we have to touch it?”

“Do we get gloves?”


The mounds of pink flesh silently wait as the students conquer the “gross factor” in preparing to approach the lab benches. Admittedly, the subtle stench of death doesn’t help.

Some students are loud and adamant about the disgusting task in front of them while others silently observe in quiet dread.

We read through the procedure and then the pairs are assigned. Students reluctantly line up to receive an organ. My handling of the hearts without gloves awes them. These hearts came straight from the slaughterhouse and there is nothing to fear.

One of the loudest opponents snaps on the latex gloves and, with attitude, approaches the heart, assuring me this is the grossest thing she will ever do in her life. However, as she wraps her gloved hands around that pig heart a transformation takes place. With sudden tenderness she exclaims, “Oh, it’s soft” followed by, “…this is actually cool” and before she knows it she is completely immersed in a pig heart dissection, her nose nearly touching the raw flesh that moments earlier had repulsed her.  Eagerly she identifies the vena cava and pokes her finger through the opening explaining how the deoxygenated blood enters the heart at this point. She easily follows the flow of the blood through the heart,  her hands becoming more and more familiar with the organ. At the end of the lab she claims, “I think I want to be a heart surgeon”. And from that day forth she becomes a serious student of science evolving from a laissez-faire B/C student to a straight A engaged, conscientious pupil. The metamorphosis is both dramatic and inspiring.

Recently, my IB students did a similar lab. This time the hearts came from the local butcher but these students also had the moment of “overcoming the gross factor”. However, they quickly immersed themselves in the dissection. Carefully they drew and labeled diagrams of their observations really trying to understand the function of the heart as they proceeded. Following the lab each one remarked how helpful that was and how clear their understanding had become.

Why do I bother tromping around trying to find pig hearts for my students? Why do I encourage them to touch the heart, get dirty, and “go for it”? Because I know there’s value in seeing and handling the real thing. Students become excited, they learn, they gain deeper appreciation for their own amazing body and all its functions. In stepping out of their comfort zone they discover that they can tolerate more “gross” than they originally anticipated, new interests are unearthed, and they receive a deep satisfaction in learning.

It’s always worth the effort to provide hands-on learning, even for IB students. Also, lets follow the example of our students and take on something new to learn! We might discover hidden talents and new passions. So, go for it!