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A big lesson in oral health

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, at 9:04 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Oct. 5, 2012, at 9:05 p.m.

Exploration Place is giving visitors a big lesson in oral health.

The Sedgwick County science and discovery center on Friday unveiled its newest permanent exhibit, Big Mouth — a giant interactive human orifice.

The mouth is the first element in the museum’s new “Heads Up Health” gallery, which returns after a six-year hiatus. Its goal is to boost health among Kansans and encourage people to join the health professions using “whimsical, wonderful, oversized” models of body parts, Exploration Place president Jan Luth said.

“The whole focus is going to be on people’s behaviors and work force development,” she said. “…You got to get people excited when they are young, and you have to get them excited in a fun way, and that’s what Big Mouth is designed to do.”

Big Mouth — a seven-foot tall, anatomically correct, multilingual mouth — asks visitors to identify oral decay and hygiene practices using a video screen and 40 interactive touch points on its teeth, tongue and gums.

Which tooth needs flossed? Tap the grime along its gumline.

Which is damaged by smokeless tobacco? Bump the brown bicuspid.

But answer it wrong and you’ll hear, “Sorry. That answer was rotten!”

Around back, there’s an open view of throat, adenoids and other oral anatomy.

Access to the gallery, located in the Grand Hall, is included with general admission to Exploration Place, 300 N. McLean Blvd. in Wichita. Prices are $9.50 for adults, $6 for ages 3 to 11, and $8 for seniors. Members and children under 3 are admitted free.

The museum, which hosts 175,000 visitors annually, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It’s closed on Mondays.

“It’s cool,” said 8-year-old Jacob Werne, the first to browse Big Mouth after its unveiling.

His 12-year-old brother, Christian Werne, agreed.

“It’s big. And you get to answer questions and touch stuff in the part of the mouth and learn about it,” he said, grinning.

“And it’s going to make you want to grow up to be a dentist, huh guys?” joked their grandmother, Karen Finstad, executive director of Delta Dental of Kansas Foundation, which funded the project through a $101,200 grant. Since its inception nine years ago, the foundation has provided $5 million in grants and services across Kansas.

Big Mouth, discovered by Finstad during an oral health conference last year, is one of two in the country, she said. The other is housed in a science museum in Roanoke, Va.

“This is one of the first big exhibits of this magnitude that we’ve been involved with,” said Brad Clothier, Delta Dental of Kansas Foundation chairman.

“We’re hoping this is an incubator for other (exhibit) opportunities as they come forward.”

The museum plans to add more giant anatomy over the next several years, including a giant ear and brain, Luth said. Next up? A massive, interactive eye to be unveiled in 2013.

The health gallery, which originally opened in 2000, folded after the museum started using the space for travelling exhibits in 2006. Later, after travelling exhibits were moved to a new location, Exploration Place rented the space for weddings, parties and other gatherings.

But the gallery returns at the request of community members who recall its impact years ago, Luth said.

“This is a gradual process and we’re thrilled to be to celebrating our first piece of ‘Heads Up Health’,” she said.

“The tone and attitude of Big Mouth, which is just so fun and approachable – that sets the tone for the entire health gallery exhibit.”

Big Mouth’s unveiling coincides with National Dental Hygiene Month. Throughout October, Exploration Place is hosting hands-on activities for visitors, offering weekend programs by Wichita State University’s Student American Dental Hygienist Association and posting oral health tips daily on its Facebook page.

“It’s very important for people to understand about their body and understand what they can do to help,” Luth said.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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