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Students mummify hens

Staff writer

Marion Elementary School sixth-grader Tristan Williams peered inside the Cornish hen she was in the process of mummifying.

“You can see what it ate last,” Williams said.

“Grain.”

Williams and her classmates could not avoid performing close examinations of their birds Friday as they followed the mummification process outlined by their teacher, Laura Baldwin.

Baldwin said the project is popular largely because the kids have to get their hands dirty.

“They want to do it because it has an element of ‘ickiness’ to it,” said Baldwin.

She proved this with a simple question to the 22 students divided into small groups in the chemistry lab.

“If anyone needs more paper towels, follow me,” Baldwin said. Most of the students followed.

“It’s fun and gross,” said Preston Schneider after drying her hands.

This is the second year students have mummified Cornish hens at the school, a Halloween event made possible by Tampa State Bank. Mickey Lundy, executive vice president of Tampa State Bank, said the financial institution spent a few hundred dollars for the poultry and mummification supplies.

“With all of the (educational funding) cuts, the school can’t do a lot of projects without help,” Lundy said, while watching the students work. “A lot of families can’t afford to send money. It’s nice to support a good education project.”

Mummifying a Cornish hen integrates multiple educational subjects, Baldwin said.

The students have been learning about ancient Egyptian history, and the process of mummifying little hens brings to life one of the famous traditions of that great civilization. Besides history, the sixth-graders also downloaded an app that will record the weight of the bird on a line graph over the next seven weeks, utilizing their math and technology skills. They will also make scientific observations of their bird bodies, nicknamed Chicken Pharaoh 1 through 6, depending on their small group.

Additionally, the students will bring their art skills to the project by constructing a sarcophagus, which is an elaborate coffin that helps preserve the deceased body. Lastly, students will write stories about how their chicken pharaoh met death, challenging their creativity.

“This project integrates all the different subject areas,” Baldwin said.

The kids, however, seemed to be focusing on the fun.

After peering into her hollow bird for a long moment, Maleyah Thomas said, “I see… weird stuff.”

When Baldwin asked if anyone was brave enough to smell the chicken, most students poked their hands up in the air and took a whiff.

“Smells fishy,” one student said.

“Try to come up with something scientific to record,” Baldwin suggested.

“Fresh?” a student asked.

“Yes,” Baldwin said. “Smells fresh.”

The students followed the general mummification formula as established by the ancient Egyptians, with some notable exceptions. The Egyptians removed the body organs and brains with a sharply hooked tool before rubbing oil on the body in order to embalm it. The Marion students, on the other hand, were provided with Cornish hens as found in the grocery store: headless and hollowed. Instead of oil, the students rubbed the birds’ bodies in salt and baking soda inside sealed plastic bags, along with smaller amounts of nutmeg and cinnamon to tamp down the fresh smell.

The process involved exact measurements of the ingredients and plenty of laughs.

“You have to open the legs and drain him,” Baldwin said. “Make sure you stick the paper towels inside to dry him, and make sure to dry his little chicken arm pits, too.”

Students weighed their hollowed and dried birds on a scale before washing their measuring cups, pans and hands. They also recorded their observations as they worked.

Observations included: “Pink, fresh, headless,” and “White, tanish and bloody.”

“It’s pretty cool,” said Zane Westmoreland. “I was kind of disappointed we didn’t get to take off the head.”

“I wanted to take out the organs,” said Seth Lanning.

The students’ excitement perked up at the prospect of continuing the project for the next seven weeks, mimicking the Egyptians’ mummification schedule.

“Next week will be a gloppy job,” Baldwin informed the students. “We have to wipe him off and re-salt him and repeat this for seven weeks.”

The students grinned.

“This is grossly awesome,” said Burton Harshman.

Last modified Oct. 29, 2014

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