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.

Perfect Pixelations: Fine art with building blocks

If you’re like me, you’re not a grown-up, despite all indicators to the contrary, and as such, you like playing with toys. I like the challenge of a good puzzle, and I like the sense of completion that finishing it brings.

In preparing for Block Party, I wanted to create a pixelated image and the project turned out to be quite the puzzle. Instructions for this type of image aren’t really available online, but examples are fairly easy to come by. Armed with no actual information but a few ideas, I decided to try my hand at building one of these “paintings.”

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The first challenge is finding a good picture. Unless you have a large and wicked variety of building block colors and sizes, you’ll need something that’s fairly simple, doesn’t have a lot of shading, and is color blocked. If you’re nervous, practice with one of Mondrian’s paintings. This will help you understand the process and can be completed quickly.

Step two is “pixelating” the image. Because not everyone has fancy photo software, we’re going to cheat a little bit. First, find an image that you’d like to pixelate; then insert your image into a word document. You don’t need a particularly large or high quality image, but we’ll get back to that in a bit.

Now, click on the picture so the “format picture” menu becomes available at the top of your document. Click “Artistic Effects” on the left side under “Color” and “Corrections.” Then click on the “light box” effect in the bottom left-hand corner. Once your picture has been “pixelated” you can right click the picture and open the “format picture” menu. This should bring up a menu bar on the right hand side of your word document.

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Click on the “Artistic Effects” option and then adjust the grid size until you feel comfortable with the level of “pixelization.”

Having trouble with your image? Let’s explore image quality. If you have a super high-resolution image, here’s what happens.

Original:

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High resolution version (1861 X 2636):

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This one doesn’t look like anything happened because there are so many pixels and they’re all so tiny. Not a good option. Now let’s look at the opposite end.

Here’s a low resolution version (85 X 100):

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This one has way too few pixels and so you can’t really tell what the image is supposed to be.

Somewhere in the middle (380 x 455):

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Not bad!

All of the images above have the light box grid set at 5. The “light box” function has to account for each of the pixels in the image, so the larger the picture, the more detailed and the harder your job will be when you try to reconstruct it.

SO! Now you have an image. Make your image as big as possible in your document and make the margins as small as your printer will allow. Print at least two copies of your image to work with. The pixels should be clear and easy to see when the image is printed out. Here’s what I ended up with:

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Please note:  Depending on your image, you will need an insane number of building blocks in a wide array of colors… Like a lot. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on eBay trying to round out my collection of single-stud yellows, pinks and oranges. I’m just saying.

One thing that might help you if you’re overwhelmed is using a black and white image. I used the image from above and recolored it to grayscale in the “Format Picture” menu under the “Color” option. Now you’ll only need gray, black and white building blocks.

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One last thing before we start constructing — you will need a base plate or base plates. These are cheap and easy to get on eBay, but you need to know how wide and how long to make your image. Count the number of squares going across the top (the width of the image) and the count the number of squares going down (the length). The image above is 29 pixels wide and 37 pixels long. The base plates come in a range of sizes but it’s going to be tricky to cobble the right combination together to make 29 x 37.  Instead I am going to aim for 30 x 40 and just expand the image on the top and the left.

At this point, you’ve got your image, you’ve got your base plates and you have an insane variety of building blocks. So let’s get building!

If your image is the same size or smaller than your base plates, you can skip this next step. If your image requires a couple of base plates to be used together, you may want to glue them to some sort of other surface such as a medium-density fiberboard or MDF, available at home improvement stores. You can also skip this step, but you’ll need to be more cognizant of your building brick placement as these will be the “glue” that holds everything together. You’ll also have a more difficult time transporting an image like this.  When you pick up the complete piece, the smaller base plates may fall off. There were a lot of upside-down cookie sheets involved with getting the completed Marilyn from my house to the Block Party exhibit in the museum.

Now if you’ve ever done a counted cross-stitch pattern, you’ll know how to count to the middle of your image and start radiating out from that center point. Since most of you probably haven’t tried your hand at counted cross-stitch, we are going to use an x,y axis grid instead.

Look at your image and figure out which two touching sides have the least amount going on. In both images, the top left has the least amount going on.

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By that, on Marilyn in particular, I mean that the image can be faked if it has to be extended to fill your base plate or a section can be totally cropped out if it is too big for your base plate.

The corner of the two busiest sides is going to be your 0,0 axis point. In Marilyn’s case, the bottom right corner is going to be the 0,0 axis. From this point, count up 10 pixels and make a horizontal line. Count up another ten pixels and make a second line. Continue this until you run out of image and then repeat vertically.

Mark your base plates every ten studs, so you don’t have to count all the time. You can do it with a permanent marker directly on the surface (it’ll get covered up anyway), or you can use sticky notes on the back of the base plates. Either way, this step will save you time and help keep you straight as you work.

Starting at your 0,0 spot, start working in those 10 x 10 squares you established. You can work in any direction, but if you skip around, make sure you use your markers. “There’s nothing worse than doing a section and realizing you’re off one line and having to move everything,“ says the voice of experience. 

Also, DO NOT WING IT. Someone in the office wanted to wing it using a slightly too large base plate and tried to incorporate the size difference while building. We started over because Marilyn looked like she was both expanding like a balloon and melting at the same time. It was awkward.

One issue I had while building is a lack of certain colors to finish a particular square. See zombie Marilyn below. There just wasn’t enough pink. BUT, because I had already marked my squares, my paper, and my base plates, I was able to just skip those spots without losing my place. In the pictures below you can both see my pencil marks on the printed Marilyn, and you can sort of see where I was folding the paper into the smaller squares so I could concentrate on one small spot.

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Almost done. I had to redo her lips because they looked weird.

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And the final product:

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And with that, I turn it over to you! You can build a prototype or test out your own ideas at Block Party, the perfect place to learn about building processes at HMNS.

 

 

Holiday How-to: Chocolate Leaves

My mom was a chemistry and home-ec teacher, so I grew up in a home where ingredients were carefully measured and food items were attractively arranged. While I got to help out in the kitchen as much as I wanted, I always liked being in the kitchen around the holidays. There were always new tricks or special touches added to dishes and along with these came short science lessons on why we were doing things that particular way.

One of my favorite things to help with in the kitchen were chocolate leaves. When done correctly, these are perfect little molds of the living leaf, just like the perfect molds and casts in the Morian Hall of Paleontology.

A chocolate leaf is made by smearing melted chocolate onto a leaf and putting it into the fridge to harden. Sounds easy, right? It is pretty easy. Read on!

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Activity: Chocolate Leaves

Materials:

Leaves (*See note in step 1.)

Chocolate candy melts

Parchment or wax paper

A cookie sheet or plate for your leaves to rest on as they cool

Procedure:

1. Pick your leaves. I like to use slightly waxy leaves so you don’t have to worry about fuzzy bits in your chocolate. NOTE: Learn about the plant you are picking leaves from before you decide to use them. Many household plants are decorative but poisonous.  Oleander is a great example of a plant that is pretty but poisonous. If you hate botany or don’t know about the Internet, getting pre-packaged basil or mint from the grocery store is a safe way to go. These leaves will be a little less firm, so you will need to be more careful with them.

2. Don’t pick leaves from poisonous plants. Seriously.

3. Wash your leaves with soap and water, rinse them thoroughly and then dry them completely. The chocolate won’t stick to wet leaves, so don’t rush this step. You will only be frustrated.

4. Put wax or parchment paper on a cookie sheet or plate. You want this to be something that will fit in the fridge with no problems.

5. Get out your candy melts. The melts come in a hundred colors. We are using chocolate colored ones in this tutorial. There will be instructions on the package on how to melt the specific brand of melts you purchased. In general, you will put the melts in a microwave safe bowl and microwave them a few seconds at a time stirring as you go. Don’t overheat the melts. They get gross and there is no coming back from that.

6. When you have everything melted and creamy, hold the leaf by its stem. I like pinching it between my thumb and index finger and then using my middle and ring finger to support the leaf. Do what feels comfortable to you.

7. Dip your stirring spoon into the chocolate. Use the BACK of the spoon to spread the chocolate on the leaf. Make sure the chocolate is thick enough that it won’t break when you try to peel it. Place the leaves on the parchment as you work, and don’t let them touch.

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8. The side of the leaf you use is up to you. If you are using mint and you put the chocolate on the back of the leaf, you will have some crazy patterns.  If you want something more subtle, use the front of the leaf. Coat the leaf almost to the edges. If you go too far, you will get ugly edges that are hard to peel. But don’t worry! Those leaves are the best to eat.

9. Put the tray of leaves in the fridge and wait a few minutes.

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10. When the chocolate is set, peel the leave off the chocolate. You should have a perfect little mold of your original leaf. This may take a little practice. Work quickly as you have something designed to melt with heat in your hot little hands.

11. Done! You can store the leaves in the fridge until you are ready to use them. If the leaves got soft when you were working with them, put them back in the fridge to firm them up. Once they are firm, you can toss them in a plastic container.

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Okay! So what’s the science here?

The word “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl word Xocolatl for “bitter water,” referring to its original incarnation as a hot, spiced beverage in the Mayan and Aztec traditions. Traditionally, chocolate is a mixture of cacao powder, cocoa butter, and a sweetener. To make chocolate palatable and stable, we now mix milk solids, added flavors, modifiers, and preservatives.

Those candy melts? NOT CHOCOLATE! In this example, they are sort of chocolate colored, so they have that going for them, but they also come in a bunch of colors that are not known to nature so… not chocolate. They are mostly made of sugar and vegetable fats – not cocoa butter – and depending on the brand, they may throw in a little wax for better melting. Mmmmm… wax.

The advantage to the melts over the regular chocolate is that they do have the wax and the vegetable oil in them, which makes melting easier since the chocolate doesn’t need to be tempered. It hardens pretty quickly and sticks to whatever you dip in it, so it makes a great coating for cake pops or whatever crazy things show up on Pinterest this month.

Want to get super nerdy about your chocolate?  (I assume you do…) MIT has these tidbits available.

What’s in typical chocolate?

  • 10-20% cacao
  • 8-16% milk solids
  • 32-60% sugar
  • 10-20% cocoa butter
  • 2% theobromine and polyphenols

Cocoa Butter Chemistry

Fats and oils are organic molecules made up of three fatty acids chemically linked by an ester bond to glycerol. Fats are solid at room temperature, while oils are liquid.

Cocoa butter fats are made up predominantly by three major fatty acid molecules: Palmitic Acid, Stearic acid, and Oleic acid.

Oleic acid is unsaturated (has a double bond on its carbon chain), making it kinked and unable to pack well with other molecules. Because of this, a greater portion of oleic acid in the fat results in a lower melting temperature for the cocoa butter.

Chocolate makers can adjust the amounts of each fatty acid to produce a chocolate that melts only in the mouth, giving it a superior quality.

Tempering chocolate

The cocoa butter in chocolate can have several different crystal structures (three-dimensional patterns in which the fat molecules pack). There are six known chocolate crystal forms, or polymorphs. You can obtain each form by varying the fatty acid ratios and the temperature at which the chocolate is tempered (cooled).

Only a few of the polymorphs are considered good for gourmet chocolate because they give the right blend of snap (when you bite into the chocolate) and melting (when it warms up in your mouth). Melting is especially important because it controls how well the chocolate disperses and releases flavor onto your tongue.

Whether you will be constructing culinary masterpieces this fall or sitting back and enjoying the kitchen creations of others, we hope you have a happy holiday with you and yours!  (And when you’ve had a little too much togetherness, we will be open on Friday…)

Halloween How-to: Make a Spooky Skeleton Out of Recycled Milk Jugs!

Halloween requires skeletons. (And so does El Dia de los Muertos, for that matter…) If you’re on a budget but like to decorate, or you’re crazy about recycling, or you’re the crafty type who loves to add custom flair to everything, or you just want to see if you can do it, we’ve got a project for you!

Using recycled gallon and half-gallon milk jugs and some other simple materials, you can make your own reusable skeleton decoration to hang in your tree or around the house for spook season. Read through this easy procedure and watch our how-to videos for a clear example. Make one or make several, depending on how much milk your family drinks…

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This homemade decoration is almost like the real thing! Photo by: Jason Schaefer

Materials: 

A minimum of nine plastic jugs – at least three of them gallon-sized

Scissors

Hole punch

String, brads or pipe cleaners

Sharpie permanent markers or paint

Decorative bits (glitter, sequins, buttons, etc.)

Optional – High-temperature glue gun for punching holes

Procedure:

Three notes before you get started:

  • If you are making a second skeleton, you can probably use your jugs more efficiently than listed here and therefore need less.  If you are making this skeleton for the first time, I have asked you to provide 9 jugs (at least three of them being gallon-sized) so that you don’t have to work quite so hard to get a completed product.
  • The high-temperature glue gun works FABULOUSLY for punching the holes in the milk carton plastic, but I don’t recommend this method if you are a) working with younger children or are b) me because I absolutely burned myself. If you can get a volunteer in, they can sit and make the holes for the students pretty quickly.
  • If you are nervous about what you are doing, you can always sketch out your pieces with a Sharpie. Once you have them the way you want them, use rubbing alcohol to remove the Sharpie lines.
  1. Lay your hand or a template of a hand over the handle of one milk jug and trace.  Reverse the template or use your other hand for the second milk jug. Carefully cut the hands out. Save the extra bits.
  2. Repeat step one for the feet.
  3. Using a fifth and sixth jug, cut an extended oval out of jug around the handle, being as generous as you can with the oval. You can always trim it later! These will be the shoulder bones or scapulae. If you are clever, you can use the leftover bits to make your rib cage in step 9 as well.
  4. At this point, you should have two hands, two feet and two shoulder bones and a pile of left over bits.
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    Where on the family tree would you place this skeleton? Photo by: Jason Schaefer

  5. Punch holes near the wrist portion of the hands and the ankle portion of the feet. Punch a hole in each end of the shoulder pieces.
  6. Using the leftover bits of your first six jugs, sketch out some bones. These should be basic stick shapes with lumps at each end. You will eventually need eight bones (four longer pieces for leg bones – two for each leg – and four shorter pieces for arms – two for each arm). Make them as long as possible. Once again, you can always trim them! In the example, my long leg bones crossed the jug diagonally to give them some extra length. With careful placement, I cut two long leg bones (and two knee caps) out of one of the leftover jugs.
  7. On a seventh jug, sketch out a skull (should consist of two large round eye sockets, an upside down heart or triangle for a nose and squares or ovals all lined up and touching for teeth). Use the two surfaces opposite the handle, and the jug should be upside-down. The neck of the jug will end up being the neck of your skull as well. You can add details as you see fit. It is also optional to cut the face out.
  8. Punch a hole in each side of the “neck” of your skull jug.
  9. Use your eighth jug to make a rib cage. You need to leave the neck of the jug as this will be the attachment point between the “hips” and the “ribs.”  That being said, cut out the handle of your jug so that there is a pretty big hole on one side of the jug.  This will be the front side of the rib cage. The neck and opposite side will represent the spine.
  10. To make the rib cage vaguely more accurate, cut some mostly horizontal strips out of the sides of the jug to leave the impression of ribs. The strips you cut out will become the empty spaces between the ribs. You will have to imagine that you are leaving a two inch vertical strip from the neck of the jug up the back to the bottom and down the front to the hole. This will act like the spine and the sternum. The horizontal strips you cut out should leave the two inch vertical strip intact.
  11. To make connection spots for the ribcage portion, cut two slits in the bottom of the jug on each side of the center. Then punch a hole on either side of each slit (for four holes total). Then punch two holes in the neck of the jug. If you are looking into the hole you created when you removed the handle, you will punch the one hole on the left of the neck and one hole on the right of the neck.
  12. To make hips, cut off the bottom of a ninth jug about two or three inches up. The example has a reinforced ring of plastic around the bottom and that was used to approximate the cuts. Round the corners of the jug and make the sides dip closer to the bottom of the jug.
  13. Punch holes in two opposite corners of the “hips.” 
  14. Cut a slit in the bottom of the “hip” piece and then punch two holes on either side of each slit (for four holes total). This is where you will attach your rib cage.
  15. Cut out two rounded corner squares from whatever leftover bits you have. These will be the kneecaps of your skeleton. Punch two holes in each that are opposite of each other.
  16. After you have everything cut out, you can make the parts interesting by drawing designs on all the bones in glow in the dark paint or Sharpie. Feel free to decorate your skeleton in either traditional Halloween or in the lighter and more decorative Dia de Los Muertos calacas style.
  17. Using a flat surface, align all the parts, making sure that you have the right connection holes punched out. Then connect all the parts together using the string, yarn or wire. Poke two holes in the top of the head and tie a loop that you can hang your skeleton from. From the top down, you should connect the pieces as such:
    • One shoulder piece to each side of the skull jug neck. Make sure they are facing the same way.
    • Tucking the ribs under the shoulder pieces so they stick out a bit, use the same skull jug neck holes to attach the rib cage. You will use the holes you created in the bottom of the rib cage jug to do this.
    • Connect your arm bones to each other and then to the shoulder.
    • Connect your hand to the end of the arm. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.
    • Connect the hip jug (bottom only) to the neck of the rib cage jug. You will use the four holes in the hip jug to connect to the two holes in the neck of the rib cage jug.
    • Connect the upper leg bones to the knee caps. 
    • Connect the knee caps to the lower leg bones.
    • Making sure they match, connect the legs to the holes in the side of the hip jug.
    • Connect the feet to the lower leg bones. Make sure they are facing the correct direction.

    #ChillsAtHMNS

    Skulls, Horseshoes, Parrots and Robots: Fall Teacher Tuesdays offer awesome classroom ideas

    It’s officially fall, and I’d like to say the weather is cooling down and the leaves are turning bright and beautiful colors, but we live in Houston. So… no.

    Instead, I can tell you that we’ve been hard at work this summer developing fun, fast and hands-on activities for this year’s ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesdays. For adults only, Teacher Tuesdays offer fun and interactive professional development opportunities for ideas to kick your lessons up a notch. We’re pretty excited about the line-up this fall, and we’re dying to give you a sneak peak of what to expect.

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    Our first ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday has us focusing on one of our favorite topics: Day of the Dead! With all-new crafts, this workshop is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Check out the photo above for a hint at the items we’ll be making in class. For those of you who have been to a Day of the Dead workshop before, you’ll be pleased to know that the sparkle box is back!

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    In October, you can join us for an in depth look at the rock cycle with James Washington, Lead Concierge here at HMNS. James, who leads tours for the museum, has his very own collection of specimens he’s willing to share with the world. Anyone who has participated in what I refer to as “The James Washington Experience” leaves with a much better understanding of how all sciences are connected.

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    You also have the opportunity to visit the new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology on Oct. 27 to discover the critters in and around the ocean. You’ll even get the chance to get up close and personal with a horseshoe crab. (Fun fact: horseshoe crabs keep you healthy in ways you probably don’t even know about but will learn in this mind-blowing workshop.)

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    For November, pop down to the rainforest as you learn about the Amazon in the Out of the Amazon workshop. As part of the workshop, you will be treated to a rainforest wildlife presentation as well as a tour of the new exhibit Out of the Amazon. Dover and Frankie, our resident green-cheeked conures, might even make an appearance and will within minutes have entire room full of adults trained to do tricks.teacher7Join us in December for a viewing of Robots 3D in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. HMNS’s own Kathleen Havens wrote the curriculum for this National Geographic feature, so you know it’ll be hands-on, fun and engaging for students while covering STEM objectives and careers. If you’d like to discover some reasonable engineering challenges you can do at school for your elementary and middle school students that don’t require a $3000 grant, this workshop is for you!

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    And that just takes us through December! The spring semester is just as exciting, covering everything from blood splatter to brain-based learning. Check out our complete schedule, and we’ll see you at HMNS!