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.

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!

    Ice cream science: Make a cool treat to beat the summer heat

    It’s getting to that time of year when it’s so hot and yucky outside that everything cold is better.

    It’s also a time for telling kids about how, when you were their age, if you wanted ice cream you had to turn a crank until your arms fell off (presumably while walking uphill to school both ways and fighting off bears…).

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    Here in the Houston Museum of Natural Science education department, we have tried making ice cream in a variety of ways to see what is easiest for kids, and not all ways are equal. (Pro tip: Those special ice cream-making balls they sell for kids freeze shut, and then kids are sad. Not recommended.) Our favorite way, at the end of this post, is fairly cheap and easy and fun for kids, but before we get to the instructions, let’s talk about some science.

    To make ice cream, you will of course need ice. The ice is simply to lower the temperature of the cream to the freezing point, but if you just used ice alone and let it sit, you’d end up with a solid block of cream – more like an ice cube – and it would take longer to freeze. What makes ice cream special is salt and stirring.

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    Water freezes at 32° F, but sprinkling salt on the ice lowers the freezing/melting point of water. How, you say? In order for liquid water to freeze to solid ice, all of the water molecules have to slow down enough to connect to each other and form solid crystals. When this happens, the water loses kinetic energy due to the decrease in movement of those molecules. Because temperature is a measurement of kinetic energy, this results in a lower temperature.

    The presence of salt interferes with this process. The water molecules can’t attract each other as easily because they are also attracted to the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Mixing the salt, ice, and water together results in a temperature below the freezing point of water, which helps the cream freeze faster. The shaking or stirring helps cool the cream evenly and efficiently. In ice cream, this lower freezing point turns the fats into solids, but the water content to be almost frozen.

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    What about the milk, then? It is much easier to make ice cream with creamer, heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half than to use skim milk because of the higher fat content in cream. You can make ice cream with skim milk, but it is really, really, really hard to do by hand, AND you have already committed to making ice cream, so I feel like you have acknowledged the inherent risk of fat consumption that comes with making a frozen confectionery delight. Just use the full-fat stuff, and let’s all move on.

    What does the fat do, anyway? Primarily the higher fat content allows for a richer, creamier texture and a more delicious flavor in your finished product. The reason for this is that when you are cooling and mixing the cream, you are also introducing air molecules to the liquid. The bits of fat in the cream add a little structure to the ice cream and trap these air molecules in the solution as it forms. This, plus the lower freezing temperature, enables you to be able to scoop the ice cream fairly easily because it allows for there to be a bit of unfrozen water in the ice cream, which stops the ice cream from becoming a solid block of ice.

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    If you have ever had ice cream that has grown ice crystals and gotten a bit of freezer burn, those ice crystals appeared because the unfrozen water in the ice cream had a chance to migrate a little bit when the ice cream was warmed slightly on the ride home or when it was left on a counter a little too long and then frozen again. There are things called stabilizers added to your ice cream to prevent this from happening. Most ice creams today have one of five stabilizers added to them: carob bean gum* (a type of bean from Africa), carrageenan (a type of algae), guar gum (a type of legume from India), sodium alginate (made from seaweed) or carboxymethyl cellulose (sounds scary but it’s plant-based). Often, if you read the label, you will see more than one of these in your ice cream to keep it smooth and delicious.

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    * Carob beans, or locust beans, are cool. They are from exotic African trees and each bean is so similar that at one point they were used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver. We still use this measurement today, but the name has changed over time to Karat.

    So now that you have had a little lecture about the science of ice cream, let’s get to the delicious lab work.

     

    Activity: ICE CREAM!!!!

    Materials:

    Individual serving containers of coffee creamer

    Ice

    Small waterproof container or quality sealable plastic sack big enough for about two or three cups of chipped ice

    Salt, any variety

    A dish towel to insulate your hands

    Optional: Inexhaustible energy of small child-based labor

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    Procedure:

    1. Find some liquid coffee creamers in individual pots.
    2. Put ice in your water proof container, filling it about a third of the way. Smaller chunks of ice work better because there is more surface area, but any ice will do.
    3. Layer your salt on your ice. Several solid sprinkles will do, but if you are nervous about the quantity, add some extra just in case. It won’t hurt anything.
    4. Put your sealed creamer cup(s) in your container and then put more ice in, filling it about 2/3 of the way.
    5. Layer on more salt.
    6. Finish filling the container with ice.
    7. Start shaking your container. Make sure it is well sealed and that you have a firm grip on it. No one wants to be injured in an ice cream-related accident. There is no way to spin that so it sounds cool. Also, this is an excellent job for kids to help with. Put on a nice, long song or two and let them wiggle till they drop. About ten minutes will do it, but you will know when you are getting close because a frost will form on the outside of your container. If you don’t feel frost forming after a couple of minutes, add more salt. To speed this process up, start with creamer pods that have been stored in the fridge. This way, your creamer will start at about 50° F, and you won’t have to work so hard.
    8. After about 10 minutes of shake, shake, shaking your ice cream, dig your creamer cup out of the ice and wipe it off.
    9. Ta dah! You are done. Unless you want to make this tablespoon of delicious homemade ice cream into a sundae and add chocolate and banana or some jelly for more flavor.

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    Note: If you are thinking to yourself, “That seems like a lot of work for a tablespoon of ice cream,” well… it is. But it’s also science. So there.

    If you get the liquid creamer that comes in a larger container at the grocery store, you can increase the volume of your creamer and make MORE ice cream. If you choose to do this, you will need to find a small waterproof (and I would suggest plastic) container to pour the creamer into and then a slightly larger waterproof container for all the ice and the salt. It’s the same procedure, just with a larger amount of the ingredients!

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    Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

    May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

    Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

    The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

    We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.

    before

    Inventory before HMNS hits…

    after

    …and after.

    On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

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    We need all the cotton balls!

    That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

    After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

    With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

    “I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

    Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

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    When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

    On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

    My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

    On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

    Oh, summer camp

    “But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

    dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

    What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

    I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

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    Tetris: Museum Edition

    When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

    I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

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    Car Tetris…

    Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

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    …showing my particular set of skills.

    Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

    The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

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    Reverse Tetris begins…

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    …and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

    “If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

    One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

    Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

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    HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

    “How many do you want?”

    All of them.

    “But there’s like 50.”

    Yes. All of them.

    This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

    Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).