The Construction of York
YorkA few years ago I had a job homeschooling a couple of teenage boys. It was one of the most interesting and challenging jobs I’ve ever had. Because of the freedom homeschooling provides, we were able to undertake quite a few interesting projects. We had lots of adventures, and many a story I could tell.

One semester, we decided to build a life-sized anatomy model. Our plans started out grand but gradually became more modest. I suggested ideas, pushed and prodded, but the boys did most of the actual construction themselves.

What we ended up with, while somewhat shy of our initial hopes, was a pretty cool functional model. It took a lot longer than expected, but it was a worthwhile project and we all learned a lot.

The boys named him York, a bastardization of “Yorick” from Master Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The following is a report about the project I drew up for the homeschooling group.

The Construction of York

Our homeschool group wanted to study biology as our science project for the spring of 2005. Since we like to keep our hands busy and our noses out of books as much as possible, we decided to construct a life-sized anatomy model.

The first step is always planning and strategizing. We spent some time reviewing the systems of the body: cardiovascular, respiratory, digestive, nervous, skeletal, lymphatic, etc. We first chose which systems we deemed necessary for a “functional” model, and which ones were practical for us to construct.

After a few days of research, we decided on the systems we would tackle. The skeletal system would be our foundation, the framework to hold everything up. Our model needed to breathe, and we wanted to have a working circulatory system. The thought of a working digestive system was intriguing. The final systems, although only representative and not functional, would be the lymphatic and nervous systems.

The first step was to construct a sturdy frame for building the skeleton on. We used some strong pieces of scrap lumber, a piece of plywood for the base, and a six-foot 2x4 for a back bone.

At each step in the process, concessions had to be made. A 100% realistic model was daunting. We figured as long as we realized what we were doing wrong, we could rationalize our choices.
We decided that we didn’t need a complete skeleton, we only needed enough to showcase the internal organs and system components that we wanted to build. We quickly decided that building complete hands and feet would take more time and effort than we had available. As a result, our skeleton had upper arms and legs, but nothing below the elbows or knees. A full complement of twelve pairs of ribs would make installing the internal organs difficult, so we settled for only eight. Some of the detail that we originally wanted to include was proving difficult, so we chose to include those details as art, using markers and paint as opposed to wood or other materials.

More scrap lumber served as shoulders, arms, and legs. A modified coffee can became the skull. The ribs were composed of wire coat hangers covered in papier-mâché. The pelvis was more coat hangers and duct tape. The whole skeleton got a couple layers of papier-mâché and white paint for consistency.
Construction of the skeleton gave us a chance to practice our “shop” skills. We used circular saws, a Dremel rotary tool, hand saws, screwdrivers, pliers, and lots of other hand tools.

The lungs were constructed out of two-liter plastic pop bottles and plastic bags. They are a modified form of the tried-and-true “balloon bottle” lungs. They were connected together with plastic tubes. The main tube was extended through the jaw and behind the head. The lungs can be inflated by blowing into the tube behind the skull.

Here was our first big challenge. We really wanted to construct a working system; we wanted to see blood moving through the heart and veins. We initially planned to have an electric pump, but this proved time consuming and expensive. We finally constructed a hand pumping system by using pieces of a squirt bottle inline with the tubes we used for the blood vessels. The heart was constructed from large plastic hose cut into two large pieces for the right and left sides of the heart. Our system didn’t require the four separate chambers of the heart to work, so we kept things a little simpler by having only two large chambers. Corks topped of the hoses. We used small plastic tubing to run all throughout the skeleton to represent blood flowing throughout the body. The tubing was run as realistically as possible. The right side ran around the lungs, returning to the heart, then out throughout the body before returning to the heart again.

More plastic tubes of various sizes, and LOTS of miscellaneous connectors, PVC and copper bends and T’s, became the foundation of the digestive system. The stomach proved to be a bit of a problem. After several false starts, we ended up modifying another plastic pop bottle (several times) until it resembled a stomach, of sorts. We really wanted to use a single tube for the esophagus, with a working epiglottis to prevent “food” from entering the lungs, and vice versa. But this again proved too daunting for the time and resources we had available. We had to use separate tubes for breathing and eating, but we managed to camouflage them well enough by hiding one behind the other. The best part of the model is that the digestive system works! You can pour a fluid or some pellets or similar small round objects into his mouth and it will make its way through the model and come out in an appropriate location.

Our original plan was to include the components of the lymphatic system as nonfunctional models. We wanted to make the organs out of vinyl or cloth and stuff them with newspaper or cotton to give them a “fleshy” three-dimensional look. But again, time was working against us. We ended up cutting them out of heavy cardboard and painting them. Yarn served to connect them in an appropriate fashion.


We planned for our project to take two to three weeks, but it ended up taking considerably longer. The whole process was plan and react, with plenty of improvisation along the way. Many times we found we had to start something over. Many of our original ideas either failed, or proved too difficult or costly. The climax was to be a clear plastic “coat” where we could add additional details such as a cross section of skin, more blood vessels, and other details. But unfortunately, the year ended before we could even attempt that part of the project.
Even though we didn’t accomplish all of our goals, we were very happy with what we managed to accomplish. We learned a lot about the body, as well as how to tackle a project.