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Taking science to heart

Fourth grader Pheobe Sandahl reacts to the dissection.1 / 2
Students were able to explore pig hearts with their hands as part of a science unit in Marcia McEachren's fourth grade class.2 / 2

Pop quiz!

What is the strongest muscle in the human body?

(Think about it... think about it...)

Don't know? Or maybe that one's too easy. Here's another: What is the largest artery in the body?

Stumped yet? Or is that still too easy? If so, try this one on for size: Name the three types of blood vessels.

Give up yet?

If you don't know the answer to one or more of these questions, then so sorry, but you're not smarter than a fourth grader. Any of Marcia McEachren's fourth grade students at Heart of the Lakes Elementary could answer these questions in a heartbeat.

Thanks to a recent two-week-long science unit on the human heart, the students know that the strongest muscle in the body is the heart, the largest artery is the aorta, and the three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, veins and capillaries.

And they know a whole lot more than that.

The kids shared their newfound knowledge in class last Wednesday. In addition to answering trivia questions like those above, they talked about keeping their hearts healthy through physical activity, eating right and not smoking. They discussed what the heart does - how it pumps blood, and where that blood goes.

"It just puffs up and goes, 'Pssshhhhffft!,'" explained one boy excitedly, puffing up his chest and then quickly deflating it.

Then, the students saw for themselves what a heart looks like - and got a hands-on lesson on the subject.

In a demonstration that really got the kids' blood pumping, Dr. Bill Rose, a veterinarian in Perham, dissected two pig hearts in front of the class.

Piece by piece, Rose showed the students the different parts of the heart - the "hard" and "squishy" sides, where the blood comes in, where it goes out, etc. - as students watched in a mix of open-mouthed fascination, disgust and awe.

"A pig heart is almost exactly like a human heart," explained Rose after students asked him why he chose hearts from that particular animal.

At the end of Rose's presentation, the kids were able to put on medical gloves and touch the hearts themselves, if they wanted to (which they all did). With their fingers, they were able to explore the different arteries and other chambers and cavities within the heart.

"It was awesome!" exclaimed student Seth Swenson.

"I kind of got grossed out and I thought I was going to puke on the table," admitted student Jordan Muench, who then laughed and added, "But it was cool!"

Students were also able to use stethoscopes to listen to their hearts in class that day. The "thump thump" sound they all heard, Rose explained, is the sound of valves in the heart closing.

One boy, who had trouble finding his heartbeat right away, joked to his teacher, "Am I alive?"

McEachren said the heart unit, including the dissection, has been an annual part of her science class for the last 15 years. Much of the curriculum comes from the American Heart Association.