About Nicole

Nicole has worked for HMNS in some capacity since 1996, whether part-time, full-time or as a volunteer. She taught for seven years in public school, including four years in Fort Bend and a short stint overseas. While she never taught science, she was always the teacher called when someone needed to remove a swarm of bees, catch a snake in the playground, or get the bat off the ceiling of the cafeteria.

Educator How-To: The eyes have it in this DIY optical illusion

Your eyes are amazing sensory organs. They help you understand shape, color and form, judge distance and alert you to potential dangers. What you perceive as “seeing” is actually the result of a complex series of events that occur between your brain, your eyes and the world around you.

Light reflected from an object passes through the cornea of the eye and moves through the lens, which focuses it. The light then reaches the retina at the very back of the eye, where it meets a thin layer of color-sensitive cells called the rods and cones. Information from the retina travels from the eye to the brain via the optic nerve.

Because eyes see from slightly different positions, the brain must mix the two images it receives to get a complete picture. The light also crisscrosses while going through the cornea so the retina “sees” the image upside down. The brain then “reads” the image and turns it right-side up.

The rods and cones are what you call photoreceptors. When they are overworked, they lose sensitivity. Normally the small movements of your eyes that you make unconsciously, or regular blinking, will keep these photoreceptors sharp and happy. If you are looking at a large enough image, where your eyes can’t rest, or if you purposely hold your eyes still, you will tire out your poor rods and cones and they will adapt to this overstimulation by no longer responding. When you move your eyes to a blank space, your worn out photoreceptors create an “afterimage”.  An afterimage is where your eyes produce a ghost image, like when you stare at something a little too bright and you see dark spots in your field of vision. In an afterimage, light portions of the original image are replaced by dark portions and dark portions are replaced by light portions.

Try this out for yourself by doing the following activity. 

You will create the Texas state flag in some unusual colors. After you stare at this incorrectly colored flag and have worn out your photoreceptors, looking at a blank wall will create a ghost image of the Texas state flag in red, white and blue!

Activity:  Negative Afterimage

Materials:
Scissors
Glue
Paper
Green construction paper
Black construction paper
Yellow construction paper 

Ed How To Optical Flag 1

Procedure:

1. Cut your green and yellow papers in thirds, width-wise.

Ed How To Optical Flag 2

2. Cut a star out of the middle of your yellow piece.

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3. Glue the yellow piece to one end of the black piece.
4. Turn the black paper so that your yellow piece is placed on the left.

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5. Glue the green piece to the bottom of the black piece.
6. Trim off any extra green.

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Now stare at the flag for a minute or so. Try not to have much in your peripheral vision so that you can concentrate on the flag.

Look away from the flag at a neutral colored wall or piece of paper.  You should be able to see the flag in red, white and blue!

Ed How To Optical Flag 6

Have a school group and want to know more about how your eyes work?  Sign up for an Eyeball Dissection with our Labs on Demand.  These labs make a great addition to a field trip, but are also available to come to your school.

Interested in knowing more about how your body works?  Visit Body Carnival, a carnival-themed interactive exhibit that explores the connections between perception and the laws of physics in the human body, at HMNS Sugar Land. Enjoy learning about the human body while investigating force, pressure, light, and color. Crawl through a giant artery to see and hear the effects of restricted blood flow, test your balance in the 10-foot Dizzy Tunnel or don a pair of vision-distorting goggles and discover how sight affects your ability to walk straight. There’s a lot to explore!

 

School’s (almost) out for summer: Time to xplore with our Xplorations Summer Camps!

Summer Camp is here again!  As we busily prepare, buying all the weird odds and ends it takes to run camp here (everything from plastic spoons to sheep eyeballs), I thought I would share a bit about camp with you.

Xplorations Summer Camp 14Recently I gave a presentation to fellow HMNS staff members about Xplorations Summer Camp, just a little informal FYI. I was surprised at how many of them stopped me later in the day and said, “I didn’t know that ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_________.” 

The No. 1 item they commented on was the sheer size of our summer camps. We have approximately 550 campers per week at HMNS in Hermann Park. This means that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we are larger than your average elementary school each week for the eight weeks of camp. 

Because of this, we take safety very seriously … which brings us to the second most surprising camp fact I shared: Staffers were also amazed to learn that all the full-time Youth Education Programs staff regularly has First-Aid, Epi-Pen injection, and Heart Saver/AED training. We have found that parents really like getting their campers back in the afternoon in same condition as when they signed them in in the morning. To that end, we feel like we should be prepared for a whole range of potential problems — everything from a Band-Aid solve-able boo-boo to a zombie apocalypse.

Our number one goal is to keep our campers safe!  A close second is to have fun while learning.

And because we are always learning new things around here, I learned how to make this infographic with some of the other numbers and statistics our staff found interesting about Xplorations Summer Camp. 

Summer Camp InfographicIf you haven’t signed up your little scientists, you’d better do it quickly.  Spots are vanishing before our eyes! 

Camp is an excellent, hands-on way to introduce kids to topics in science. They learn, have fun and are able to explore themes and careers that can help them change the world. Perfect for kids age 6-12, sign up for Xplorations Summer Camps today! Click here to see our full catalog of age-specific camps.

Educator How-To: Mimicking weather with convection currents

There has been a lot of strange weather this spring. Temperatures in North Dakota reached -60°F — which is about the same temperature at the surface of Mars, and about 50°F colder than the North Pole on the same day. 

Meanwhile, in Australia, temperatures reached over 120°F! California is at its driest point since they started keeping records in 1849. And just recently, a bout of deadly tornadoes tore through the Midwest.

The rapid changes happening on the surface of the Earth, like hurricanes and tornadoes, and the slower changes happening under the Earth’s surface, like earthquakes and volcanoes, are as awe-inspiring as they can be terrifying.  Understanding the dynamic Earth helps us prepare for the worst that Mother Nature has to offer.

On that note, here’s a simple but really cool experiment you can do to get you started on the path to meteorology mastery. With a few simple items, you, too, can create a convection current.

Activity: Convection Currents

Materials:
-Large, clear container with a depth of at least two inches (a Pyrex loaf pan would work)
-Red and blue food coloring
-Ice cube tray and access to a freezer
-Water
-Electric kettle, stove or microwave to boil water
-Styrofoam cup to hold very hot water

Procedure:

  1. Dye water blue using food coloring (make it pretty dark). Then freeze in an ice cube tray. When you have your ice cubes made, move on to the remaining steps.
  2. Begin to heat water in an electric kettle. You’ll use it later on.
  3. Fill a clear container with tap water, and then set it on the table to settle. The water should be as still as possible, so try not to jostle the table.
  4. Carefully place a blue ice cube at one edge of the clear container. The blue ice makes it easier to see what happens to the cold water melting off of the cube. You should notice where the cold blue water goes in the clear container.  View the container from the side — your eyes should be about the same height as the water.
  5. Repeat this process again to make sure it isn’t a fluke! (It’s not…)
  6. The cold water tends to sink down. (It is denser — heavier for its size — than the room temperature water). So what do you expect warm water to do if we added some to the bowl? Let’s find out.
  7. Add several drops of red food coloring to the bottom of the plastic or Styrofoam cup. Pour approximately half a cup of heated water into the cup. Lower the cup close to the surface of the water near one edge of your demo tank, and pour a small amount of the hot red water into the tank. Try to pour it so it runs down the side of the container and try to disturb the water as little as possible.
  8. Does the red water do what you expected?

What’s Going On Here?

So how does this relate to the weather? Well, it’s all about convection!

Convection is the action of warm air rising and cold air sinking. You are using water to model some things that also happen in the atmosphere because sometimes air moves in similar ways to water. You probably guessed that the blue water represents a cold air mass and the red water represents the warm, unstable air mass.

A thunderstorm is caused by unstable air and convection plays an important part. A body of warm air is forced to rise by an approaching cold front. Other things can cause warm air to rise, like a mountain slope. In this experiment, the cold water sinks while the warmer red water rises, or stays higher than the blue.

Can’t get enough of the science of weather and natural disasters?  We’ve got four things to quench your thirst for all things weather!

1. In a new special exhibit open this summer, Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters, you will come face-to-face with the inside of a tornado, create your own volcano and earthquake, and witness the aftermath of several historical disasters. You’ll see why these events happen and how we study to better predict them.

2. On the lower level of the Museum, you can step in front of the camera and join KHOU Channel 11 Chief Meteorologist Chita Johnson for a severe weather update — with you as the weather reporter! It’s lights, camera, action! as you become the star of the show on a replica of the Channel 11 weather set!

3. Are you ready for nature’s fury? Force 5 in the Planetarium is your chance to survive three Category 5 storms — a hurricane, a tornado and a solar eruption — without any rain, wind or dangerous radiation. Discover the causes of weather catastrophes and venture into the middle of the action when nature goes Force 5!

4. For the smaller scientist in your family, check out Calamity Camp for 6 and 7 year olds and Nature Unleashed for 8 and 9 year olds. In Calamity Camp, you will tame a twister, battle a blizzard, hunt a hurricane and much more as you explore and experiment to discover nature’s awe-inspiring fury. Nature Unleashed is an exciting interactive journey to the center of the Earth, where we’ll explore earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and more!

No matter how you explore weather at HMNS this summer, you’ll be blown away!

Tales from Tanzania: Oh, the things you’ll find in a caldera

On the next leg of our trip, we visited the Ngorongoro Conservation Area.

NgorongoroNow, you may ask, “Nicole, your last adventure was in a national park, and this is a conservation area — what’s the difference?” And I’d answer that a conservation area has people living on it, whereas in a national park, no permanent settlements are allowed. The Maasi people live in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area with their cattle full time. They have been allowed this exception since they do not hunt. According to their traditional customs, they are only allowed to eat cow, goat and sheep so the wild animals in the crater have nothing to fear from them.

The Ngorongoro Conservation Area is especially interesting, as it contains the largest unbroken caldera in the world. It was created by a volcano, which has now collapsed. Before it collapsed, the volcano would have been much, much higher than Kilimanjaro.

The formation of a caldera

The crater has given rise to a variety of ecosystems due to its geography and sheer size. Moisture is pushed in from the ocean in the east, but it gets caught at the rim of the crater. The outside eastern edge of the crater, therefore, is home to a thick highland forest full of tropical birds. The west side of the crater only gets rain in the rainy season and most of the time looks something like dry west Texas.

Interestingly, the crater is responsible for most of what we have seen and what we will be seeing on this trip. The eastern edge of the crater is so dense that natural springs flow into Lake Manyara rather than the crater, keeping it green and providing a source of water for animals.

Looking to the west, when the volcano erupted 2.5 million years ago, the wind blew the volcanic ash to the Serengeti, which caused hard-packed earth that only the acacia can penetrate.

Later in the evening, we were able to talk to crater naturalist, Yotham, at our hotel. He was very surprised to see several of our pictures (we always knew we were looking at something awesome if one of the driver guides took out a cell phone to take a picture).

In particular, Yotham was surprised to see our shots of the Little Bee Eater, as they usually don’t come into the crater. Instead, they live in the highland forests on the outside western edge.

DSCN1517DSCN1205As we continued to go through our shots, he indicated that we had, in fact, had a very, very good day of observations.

Here are some of the highlights: 

Hyena kill: We arrived right after the wildebeest was taken down. Just out of screen are several other hyenas and 20 or so vultures waiting for their turn at the carcass. The eating hyena kept dragging the carcass away so it could eat without feeling crowded.

DSCN1604Ostrich: So, I learned something new today. When you see a male ostrich with a bright pink neck, it is feeling frisky. A male ostrich with a white or gray neck is not currently interested. Female ostriches are very beautiful but very differently colored than the male ostriches.

DSCN2036DSCN2048Serval: This picture is a bit miraculous. The serval is normally a nocturnal animal, so it was amazing to see it out during the day. AND THEN IT STARTED HUNTING. AND IT WAS AWESOME.

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