About Kat

Kat has been both the spokesperson for the CSI: The Experience exhibit and project manager for the Imperial Rome exhibit and has a love of all things historical and cultural. She is responsible for the Xplorations summer camp program, coordinating weekday labs during the school year, writing department curriculum and presenting at teacher trainings. Kat has worked at the Museum since 1996.

No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!

Educator How-To: Cross-curricular Education Gets Cheesy

As educators, we all want students to understand the world holistically, but we still tend to teach each subject independent from all other subjects. Food is an effective way to capture the attention of students and provide a useful tool for creating a more global and cross-curricular learning environment. This global approach to learning has been shown to produce deeper understanding of the concepts being taught.

Making cheese, which seems on its face to be a fun break or a supplemental activity, can be used to discover important concepts and ideas that span an entire range of subjects.  These subjects include, but are not limited to, chemistry, history, and geography. Hands-on learning activities help to create interest and to create better retention of learned material.cheese meme

In that spirit, try one of my favorite activities. I use this activity at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to make learning and discovery memorable. It is a culminating activity for my Iron Age lab. It’s simple, affordable, and the kids love it! Why not give it a try?

A Little Bite of Cheesy History

Milk has been a major source of nutrition from the earliest of times. Milk is full of protein, fat, calcium and other important vitamins and minerals. It just so happens that it’s also full of water and sugars, which have no real nutritional value and cause the milk to spoil quickly without refrigeration. With the invention of cheese, man found an ingenious way to prolong the shelf-life of milk.

Because bacteria love a moist and nutrient-rich environment, milk spoils easily. In antiquity, there was no refrigeration, so unless it was cold outside, fresh milk could not be saved from day to day. No one knows how, but our ancestors figured out the trick to preserving milk. They discovered that calves have a substance called rennet in their stomachs that separates the milk solids and fats from the water in the milk they suckle from their mothers. We know that animal stomachs were used to transport and hold liquid, so it’s possible the milk turning to curds and whey was a fortuitous accidental discovery.

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Goat stomach still used to make cheese in Sardinia. Photo by Ivano Atzori.

The first cheesemakers found that if they added some rennet to fresh milk, it would soon separate into two separate parts. We call these two parts the curds (where the good stuff is) and whey (mostly made up of water and some sugars). They learned that they could extract even more moisture from the curds if they cut them up and added salt to them, which also had the benefit of adding flavor to the cheese. Heating and pressing were also used to expel additional liquid from the curds. If left to age, molds and bacteria colonized the cheese, making it even more tasty! Thus was born an easy-to-make, non-perishable, transportable food for everyone!

Tasty Science: Make Your Own Ricotta!

Let’s get started! Here’s what you need:

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Pots
  • Hot plates (or a stove)
  • Mixing spoons
  • Large bowls
  • Sieves
  • Cheesecloth
  • Water
  • Paper towels

First, set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen two layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth. Next, pour the milk and cream into a pot and stir in the salt.

Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then, turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for one minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

Pour the mixture of curds and whey into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta.

Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth and any remaining whey. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for four to five days.

This is a basic but tasty cheese and anyone can be successful in making it. If you decide to incorporate this activity into your classroom, please share your “cheesy” pictures with HMNS on Facebook or Instagram under the hashtag #HMNS. 

Discreet Hoarding: The Mystery of the Disappearing Horses and Cabinets of Curiosity

I’m a dyed-in-the-wool museophile (no, I did not just make that word up). I love to look at collections of amazing specimens and artifacts. Turns out I also love to hoard things — oh, I mean collect items of great interest and importance. I like to believe my propensity to collect is an adaptive instinct that has been exponentially amplified over millions of years of selective evolution. This impulse to collect benefited my ancestors because they were driven to collect and accumulate scarce objects that could be used when times were tough. I’ll admit, if this is the case, my compulsion may have become somewhat maladaptive, though extremely satisfying.

I have different strategies and reasons for my collections. Some based on possessing as many objects as possible related to a specific subject and others amassed as a result of a shared relaxing activity, such as collecting “sea glass.” Still others evolved in an effort to collect and hold onto memories in a tangible way.

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Since we’re opening the Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit today at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I have spent the week recalling the various collections I have assembled over the years. Some I’ve hung onto, others have been dismantled and distributed to others through garage sales, gifts, and donations to Goodwill. My first collecting experience centered on tiny plastic horses. I can’t recall where any of them came from or where most of them went (I still have one; more on this later), but I do remember how much joy arranging and rearranging them on my windowsill brought me as a child.

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The next memory is of my marble collection. Collecting marbles of all sorts became an absolute obsession and my friends and I spent hours negotiating trades, which could get quite heated. My collection was kept in a homemade blue drawstring bag and I took it everywhere. The final disposition of this collection is a mystery to me, one which still bothers me when I have occasion to think about it.

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As a child who attended elementary school in the 1980s, I had the obligatory sticker collection. Stickers stuck carefully to the slick pages of a photo album, repurposed to house a growing collection. The most prized members of the collection were the puffy stickers with googly eyes and the scratch-and-sniff stickers carefully peeled from homework assignments that were well done. Strategic trades were made at the bus stop and trading with boys was to be avoided at all costs because their collections were not well-curated.

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Around this same time I began collecting “sea glass” with my mom, grandmother, and great aunt along the shores of Maine. This was a time-honored tradition that they felt compelled to pass down to me. There really is nothing like it. The feeling of finding a rare piece of blue cobalt glass is truly indescribable, it might as well have been gold. A full jar sits proudly on my bathroom counter and I still get pleasure from gazing at the colorful shards with the well-worn edges and remembering the cool summer mornings combing the shores of Maine with my mom, my grandmother (now deceased) and great-aunt Mimi.

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Later, gargoyles were the object of my desire. I spotted my first gargoyle strategically placed in my brother’s garden, hiding beneath the fern fronds. When I saw it, I was hooked on these dark and macabre figures who were inexplicably cute while still being scary. I was beyond excited when I found my first one at a price I could afford. The collection slowly grew over the next 10 years. Now, pieces of this once-prized collection reside in many different places and serve a variety purposes, such as props for the Medieval Madness camp and guardians for a very special friend of mine, perched high atop a kitchen cabinet keeping a watchful eye. One sits atop my prized collection of “sea glass,” ensuring it stays safe.

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I then turned my attention to collecting items associated with death and funerary rituals, a proclivity my mother objects to, asking, “Why can’t you find something more uplifting to be interested in?” The objects range from those related to El Día de los Muertos to replicas and art related to mummification in ancient Egypt, the most prized piece being a full-size replica of an ancient Egyptian mummiform coffin made to hold CD’s.

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Last but not least, is the antique printer’s drawer hanging on my bedroom wall. It is full of tiny priceless items that spark memories from many different stages of my life. Some pieces are more interesting than others, like the replica medieval dice engraved with skulls and the only small plastic horse to survive the mysterious disappearance of my first childhood collection. It also has some of my most precious childhood memories, like my first house key and the name tag from the collar of my first dog.

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Home Cabinets Social Media Contest

Have a collection of your own? We want to see it! Post images in the comments section on Facebook or on Instagram under #HMNS. Include what excites you and why you collect certain items. HMNS Marketing will put entries to a vote, and the owner of the most impressive cabinet will win four tickets to the permanent exhibit halls, which includes entry into our new Cabinet of Curiosities. We’ll also feature images of the winning cabient across our social media platforms. HMNS is accepting entries until May 20. Winner will be announced the first week of June.

Exploring the Natural Sciences with Blocks: It Can Be Done!

Nothing inspires both children and adults quite the way a museum does. A close second is the inspiration that both the young and old find playing and experimenting with various kinds of toys that encourage building and construction.

Exploration of the natural sciences and imaginative construction play are a natural fit. The museum’s new exhibit Block Party provides a unique opportunity for families to first explore the natural sciences in the museum’s exhibit halls and then to experience hands-on creative exploration as they get up to their elbows in interlocking bricks that can be used to build anything imaginable!

It’s well-established that block or building play are ideal avenues to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, capacity for divergent thinking, collaborative skills, and spatial thinking in children. In addition, there’s evidence connecting complex block play and construction toys with advanced math skills in later life. Building play is also beneficial for the brains of tweens and adolescents, and don’t be fooled, they still love to build and play. Recent studies link construction play with superior performance on tests of spatial skills and mathematics for older children.

Structured block play is a term used when a child attempts to recreate a construction by consulting a model or blueprint. This kind of block play calls on a specific skill set that is crucial for many complex tasks. Why not take advantage of the various opportunities available at the museum to collect inspiration for structured block play?

In order for your child to build a recreation of something they observed in the museum, they have to analyze what they saw, perceive the parts that made up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to one another. Here are some great ideas to get you started. Visit the exhibits and then visit Block Party to build and explore. Please share the great ideas you and your children come up with, and don’t forget to submit your creation to our weekly contest!

Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals

Discover the beautiful gems and minerals and then recreate the geometric structure of minerals using interlocking blocks.

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John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas

Explore models of Maya and Aztec temples and pyramids and then construct your own.

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Morian Hall of Paleontology

Discover all manner of prehistoric fossils and then reconstruct models of biped and quadruped dinosaurs to experiment with balance.

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Welch Hall of Chemistry

Visit the periodic table of elements in the chemistry hall and then model different molecules.

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Cockrell Butterfly Center

Visit the butterflies and observe the amazing symmetry of their wings, then build a symmetrical model of your own using blocks.

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Burke Baker Planetarium

See Robot Explorers in the Planetarium and then create your own model robot to explore other worlds.

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Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

Watch Journey to Space 3D on the big screen and then design a space ship to send to Mars.

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Wiess Energy Hall

Journey through the energy hall and then construct an innovative model drilling platform or solar energy farm.

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Strake Hall of Malacology and Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology

Discover the amazing world of coastal ecology and mollusks. Then, design and build a model of an artificial reef to be used in conservation efforts.

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Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife

Observe the different dioramas and then construct your own museum display using building blocks.

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Have a great time building your relationship with your child by building with blocks! Our brand-new Block Party interactive play area is designed to inspire the imaginations of all ages. Construction has begun and the excitement is building!