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Lesson Ideas

Gross and Disgusting Science Articles Collection

Each title in this collection of adapted research articles comes with its own “ick” factor to scintillate your students. Meanwhile, they’ll be learning about ancient and medieval people, digestive science, infectious diseases, or other fascinating and true research discoveries! Engage students with standards-matched adaptations, introductory video content, comprehension questions, and vocabulary to further your lesson outcomes. Each adapted article also comes with additional suggestions for activities to enhance the readers’ understanding and make the class more exciting.

1. What was life like in medieval England?

The “ick” factor: scientists collected samples from skeletons in graves to study intestinal parasites!

Abstract: We looked for signs of parasitic worm infection in people who lived in Cambridge, England during the Middle Ages. We compared two groups of people who had very different lifestyles: Augustinian friars and common laborers. The friars had better food and lived longer than the common people. They also were more likely to have access to running water and better toilets. Surprisingly, the friars had a higher worm infection rate! We think the reason might be that the friars used human poop to fertilize their vegetable gardens.

This article is suitable for elementary school and middle school students. This article includes a Lesson Idea video to engage students in learning about different parasites.

  • Key terms: archaeology, infectious diseases, parasites, poop
  • Scientific figure: bar graph, microscopy image
  • Scientific method: field study, microscopy

2. How can poop be cleaned and reused?

The “ick” factor: scientists tested how to filter poop water in Madagascar!

Abstract: Everybody poops. It’s the natural cycle of digestion. But what happens to our poop after we flush? The process is actually very complex. In cities of developed countries, it’s pretty normal for toilets to be hooked up to the sewage treatment facilities nearby. These facilities work to slurp up any essential nutrients from the wastewater and break down any harmful chemicals. When we remove things like nitrogen and phosphorus from the waste, we can help clean the water to return it to our rivers. Miniature versions of these facilities can also be found in suburban or rural areas in developed countries. However, in developing countries (and even some rural areas in the United States)  toilets may not be connected to sewage treatment facilities because of cost, social, or environmental reasons. That means that about 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to proper sanitation facilities. We wanted to find out if we could build a low-cost treatment option using only materials found locally to help solve this problem.

This article is suitable for middle school and lower high school students.

  • Key terms: biotechnology, nutrient cycling, poop, waste
  • Scientific figure: pictograph, pie chart
  • Scientific method: experiment, onsite study

3. Can viruses save lives?

The “ick” factor: scientists look in chicken poop to find a cure for a bacterial infection!

Abstract: Have you ever heard of bacteriophages? They are tiny viruses that can infect and kill bacteria, including the harmful bacteria that make us sick! Scientists discovered bacteriophages (phages) over a century ago. And they are actually all around us! Researchers have found phages in sewage, soil, and even in our bodies. What if we used this natural enemy of bacteria to our advantage? Can phages protect us against bacterial diseases? Researchers have used phages to treat disease in the past. But were they successful? We reviewed clinical reports of phage therapy for the last 15 years. Our research showed that phages can be quite helpful and phage therapy was successful against bacterial infections. This is really important, because antibiotic resistance has become a major threat to our health.

This article is suitable for middle school and lower high school students. An audio version is available in English, and there are written translations available in Arabic, Bulgarian, and Spanish. This article is accompanied by a Meet-A-Scientist interview with original researcher Tiffany Luong.

  • Key terms: antibiotic resistance, biotechnology, disease control, infectious diseases, microbiology
  • Scientific figure: microscopy image, pictograph
  • Scientific method: case study, controlled blinded study, data validation, systemic review

4. How can we find out about ancient Egyptian germs?

The “ick” factor: scientists study an ancient Egyptian person who had leprosy!

Abstract: Microbes are everywhere on Earth. They’re in the soil, the rocks, the oceans, and in your body! The organisms living on you are called your microbiome. Your microbiome is important for your health. We wanted to know if we could use DNA to learn about the microbiome of mummified ancient Egyptian people. We used a new technique that matches up broken pieces of DNA. On the mummies, we found microbes that can cause gum disease. We also found evidence of germs that cause leprosy, hepatitis, and other infectious diseases.

This article is suitable for middle school and lower high school students. A written translation is available in Bulgarian (PDF).

  • Key terms: archaeology, genetics, infectious diseases, microbiology, microbiome, paleogenetics
  • Scientific figure: map, pie chart
  • Scientific method: DNA sequencing, experiment

5. What can we learn about aging from naked mole-rats?

The “ick” factor: what looks weirder than a naked mole-rat!

Abstract: Did you know that naked mole-rats don’t age the same way humans and other mammals do? These incredible rodents don’t seem to age physically and they are resistant to age-related diseases. That’s why they can live over 30 years! Scientists are trying to understand how aging works in naked mole-rats so that they can better understand aging in humans. We conducted a DNA analysis of naked mole-rat tissue to find out if their DNA shows signs of aging. We discovered that naked mole-rats do age on a molecular level like other mammals. Identifying where the DNA changed in naked mole-rats allowed us to predict what effects these changes might have on the body. We also found that members of a naked mole-rat community age faster than their queen.

This article is suitable for elementary school and middle school students. It is available in both upper and lower reading levels and in Spanish (PDF). Audio versions are available in both English (lower level) and Spanish. This article includes a Lesson Idea video to engage students in manipulating DNA and understanding phenotypes.

  • Key terms: aging, dual reading level, genetics
  • Scientific figure: bar graph
  • Scientific method: DNA sequencing, experiment

6. Can we smell malaria?

The “ick” factor: scientists collected odor samples from feet and arms, with photos to show how!

Abstract: Malaria is one of the deadliest diseases in the world. People get infected through a mosquito bite after which the symptoms can vary from a mild feverish disease to a deadly one. There are some people though who don’t develop any symptoms – but they can still transmit malaria. This makes it more difficult to control the disease as there are more infected people out there than it appears. Other researchers have discovered that malaria can change people’s odor in order to attract mosquitoes. We wanted to see if we could use these changes to identify malaria cases. We collected odor and blood samples from approximately 400 children from Kenya. We observed different odor patterns in children who were infected with malaria and showed symptoms, those who were infected but did not have symptoms, and uninfected children. Using these patterns we were able to predict who has malaria and who does not, regardless of whether they showed symptoms.

This article is suitable for middle school and high school students.

  • Key terms: biotechnology, disease control, infectious diseases, insects, malaria, mosquitoes, parasite, vector borne diseases
  • Scientific figure: microscopy image, scatterplot
  • Scientific method: chromatography, data validation, mass spectrometry, microscopy, PCR (polymerase chain reaction), proxy data, representative sampling, scientific modeling

7. How do some fungi turn insects into zombies?

The “ick” factor: parasites turn their hosts into zombies and control their behavior – just like in the movies!

Abstract: Did you know that certain fungi can turn insects into zombies, just like in the movies? These “zombie-making” fungi control the insects’ behavior and make their hosts do strange things like walking a long way, climbing tall plants, and hanging onto high surfaces. This is so the fungi can make their infectious spores spread further. There are many types of zombie-making fungi, and most have evolved independently. Yet they change the insects’ behavior in a similar way. How do they do this and why is it so common? We reviewed previous studies on zombie-making fungi to search for an answer. These fungi use both mechanical and chemical processes to control their hosts. And while the changed behavior is very similar, the ways they achieve it vary greatly among the different species of zombie-making fungi. Each one has its own unique way of manipulating insects to change the same behaviors! We believe these same behaviors are changed by all these different fungal species because these manipulations are the best way to infect as many other hosts as possible.

  • Key terms: animal behavior, evolution, fungi, insects, parasites
  • Scientific figure: data table, pictograph
  • Scientific method: systematic review

This article is available in two reading levels: for elementary-middle school and for high school students, as well as in Spanish. Check out the interview with the researcher with many cool photos.

Ask-a-Scientist Podcast E10: Dr. Will Beckerson, zombie insects researcher

That’s Not All!

There is way more gross science to find on our site. Check out our full collections on Poop, Waste, Parasites, Insects, Pests… and many other disgusting topics!

Title image from Phichitta Khuntee on WikiMedia Commons

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