Build a better monster

Wednesday, October 19, 2011
by Peggy Coulombe

Winged, one-eyed monsterMonsters are springing up online all over the Phoenix area – possibly 16,000 of them! These are real Halloween horrors: furred, fanged, feathered and altogether fun.

Who is creating this Frankenstein frenzy? Kids – if they have a copy of “The Monster Manual.” The manual can be found on ASU’s “Ask a Biologist” website (

Clicking on the “Build a Monster” button opens a page with a series of tri-colored dots. These are a set of instructions much like a genetic code, except they make up monsters instead of people or animals.

Will it be seven-eyed, have bird legs or be Day-Glo orange? Find out as you decode each segment using a colored key. Your monster grows horns or sprouts wings right before your eyes. You can even give it a name.

The manual was developed by Laura Martin at the Arizona Science Center. She worked with ASU artists Charles Kazilek and Sabine Deviche, and with science advisor Adrienne Sheck from Barrow Neurological Institute in Phoenix.

“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.”

The monster builder screen

The Monster Manual is part of a bigger project that Martin is working on called “Body Depot.” It uses the idea of a hardware store to 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 offer new ways to 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. In addition, comic books, web games, stories and other activities can be found online at “Ask A Biologist.”

More than a million children, parents, teachers and lifelong learners from Arizona and around the world visit “Ask a Biologist” each year. They look for activities like these that excite and put learning in kids’ hands.

The Body Depot design team includes museum staff, scientists, teachers, medical students, high school students, community volunteers, artists, and others. The group partners with urban, rural and Native American school districts.

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 called macrophages to 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 kids’ futures.”

Things like monster building, which helps kids understand pattern building, bioinformatics and combinatorics. And which will leave more than one colorful Quacktopus haunting the Phoenix area, seven eyes and all.

Visit the Body Depot online: