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!

Celebrate Earth Day 2014 with environmental documentary Trashed at its Houston premiere

The beauty of Earth from space stands in stark contrast to the view from the ground. There is now more human detritus across the globe than ever before. Industrialization, coupled with exponential population increases, pose a serious threat to the life and health of humans and ecosystems across the world.

A scene from the documentary Trashed, making its Houston  premiere Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in celebration of Earth Day 2014.

A scene from the documentary Trashed, making its Houston premiere on Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in celebration of Earth Day 2014.

Vast landscapes in China are covered in tons of rubbish. The wide waters of the Ciliwung River in Indonesia are now barely visible under a never-ending tide of plastic. Children swim among leaking bags; mothers wash in the sewage-filled supply.

On a beach in Lebanon, a mountain of rubbish towers — a pullulating eyesore of medical waste, household trash, toxic fluids and dead animals. It’s the result of 30 years of consumption by Sidon, just one small city. As the day’s new consignments are added to the top, debris tumbles off the side and into the blue of the Mediterranean.

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“There is an equally urgent need for the most imaginative and productive solutions to this troublesome subject to be understood and shared by as many communities as possible throughout the world. This is where movies can play such an important role: educating society, bringing ‘difficult’ subjects to the broadest possible audience,” says Irons on the urgent need for addressing the problem of waste and sustainability.

In the North Pacific, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch shows the detrimental effect of plastic waste on marine life. Chlorinated dioxins and other man-made persistent organic pollutants are attracted to the plastic fragments. These are eaten by fish, which absorb the toxins. We then eat the fish, accumulating more poisonous chemicals in our already burdened bodies.

Meanwhile, global warming, accelerated by the emissions from landfill and incineration, is melting the ice caps and releasing decades of these old poisons, which had been stored in the ice, back into the sea.

Trashed Blog 3Each year, we throw away 58 billion disposable cups, billions of plastic bags, 200 billion liters of water bottles, billions of tons of household waste, toxic waste and e-waste. We keep making things that do not break down.

You have all heard these horrifying facts before. In Trashed, you can discover what happens to the billion or so tons of waste that go unaccounted for each year.

The documentary Trashed makes its Houston debut Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in celebration of Earth Day 2014.

The documentary Trashed makes its Houston debut Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

In the award-winning documentary Trashed, Academy-Award winning actor Jeremy Irons travels to locations around the world to see how natural landscapes are now tainted by pollution to discover the extent and effects of the global waste problem. He then turns to hope and searches for solutions. From individuals who have changed their lives and produce almost no waste, to increasing anti-waste legislation, to an entire city which is now virtually waste-free, he discovers that change is not only essential, but happening.

Join Dr. Herb Ward, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University for the Houston premiere of Trashed on Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This is a great way to celebrate Earth Day 2014.

Click here for advance tickets.

To learn more about the film, visit trashedfilm.com or watch the trailer for Trashed below.

 

Now taxidermy’s cool (and ethical): Mickey Alice Kwapis teaches her trade in Houston

When you see the word “taxidermist,” what kind of image comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a burly man with a Gandalf beard wearing a stained flannel shirt standing next to a deer carcass. If that’s you (as it was me until just this week), get ready for that image to shatter.

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Mickey Alice Kwapis, taxidermist, is changing the world of taxidermy – one critter at a time. In an age when anything and everything is going digital and the word “millennial” is thrown around as a burn, this young professional is making waves by embracing the rich tradition and art of taxidermy.

Kwapis performs freelance taxidermy and travels the country to teach classes to the general public. On her website she says, “The point of what I do is to create something that looks lifelike and alive, and to teach others the skills necessary to do taxidermy the traditional and anatomically correct way.”

If you check her out on Instagram or Tumblr, you can see the variety of animals she’s worked with – everything from kangaroos to octopi – and she only started this work toward the end of her time at college. Of entering the field, she says, “One night after work, my coworker invited me over to help with a biology project for one of her classes. A night of cheap red wine and a dead squirrel turned into a full-blown business for me.” Tada! (And to think of all the road kill I’ve passed without a second thought…)

Since that one fateful night, she’s gone on to teach classes and sell her product all over the country. And it seems that everywhere she goes, people are surprised by this young, intelligent woman so clearly passionate about taxidermy and how infectious this passion becomes (she was actually in Houston last year).

In a piece called, “Why Do Nashville Hipsters Love Taxidermy?,” NPR tried to determine what the craze was all about. Beginning with the growing community of “Hipsters Who Hunt,” NPR discussed how “DIY culture is inspiring everything from knitting to canning.” The interview posited the question, “Is taxidermy all of these impulses rolled into one?”

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If you follow Kwapis’ business model, it certainly seems true.

You see, for her, nothing goes to waste. On her About page, she states:

“No animals are ever killed for the sake of taxidermy or art or trophy. The skin is used for educational purposes. The skull and bones are either used for teaching collections in schools or ground into bone meal (a special kind of fertilizer) and the organs and meat are used for feeding other animals. Bottom line: nothing goes to waste.”

So there you have it folks! There’s a young, funky, environmentally-minded, ethical taxidermist coming to HMNS to teach you! Don’t wait – sign up for her class (on March 29) now. (Register A.S.A.P.; space is very limited!)

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ABOUT MICKEY ALICE KWAPIS
Mickey Alice Kwapis is a twentysomething licensed taxidermy educator and biology enthusiast based in Cleveland, Ohio. She travels internationally to teach traditional taxidermy techniques for affordable prices to anyone who wants to learn. She will be offering two classes at the Houston Museum of Natural Science on March 29. More info is below.

TAXIDERMY CLASSES AT HMNS
Learn traditional taxidermy techniques from licensed taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis. You will acquire the skills necessary to do taxidermy the traditional and anatomically correct way the first time. You will transform a frozen rabbit into a beautiful taxidermy piece over the course of a few hours, as well as learning the fundamentals of ethical taxidermy. The class fees are inclusive of all supplies needed. Participants must be 15 years of age or older. Participants under 18 must be accompanied by a parent.

Beginning Taxidermy: Full-Body Bunny Mount
Saturday, March 29, 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.
Tickets $235, Members $200

Advanced tickets required. For tickets, call 713-639-4629 or click here.

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Getting to the point: Medieval swordsman John Clements offers classes at HMNS

As a child, I loved two things: dinosaurs and swords (and you can probably see why I’ve wound up at HMNS). Like many children, the movies I watched informed how I’d play – and having grown up on classics like The Princess Bride (which you can watch at HMNS on March 21) and Star Wars, it’s no surprise that play sword fighting was my favorite activity. I had at the ready all the materials I needed in my backyard: a stick for a sword, a tree as a stand-in dragon; what else could a kid ask for? As a teenager, this interest continued as my friends and I would craft “weapons” (nothing dangerous, I assure you) from objects around the house, but it wasn’t until college that I really started to learn about and appreciate the history of the sword and how one is to be used properly.

While there are many, many types of swords, used throughout different times and places as prize fighting items, the idea behind their design and how to use them has remained the same (no, not just the pointy-end-goes-in-bad-guy concept). Swords were meant to be a very economical way to fight, allowing the knight (or the dueler, etc.) to expend as little energy as possible while holding their opponent at bay. Aided by a good foundation in basic mechanics (i.e., fulcrums and levers), one seeks to use their appendages with the most efficiency — a small bit of movement and a twist of the wrist should be all one needs to propel the blade through your opponent’s defense.

Building from this principle, swords have been designed to be best suited to different fighting environments. The broad sword, invented in the Middle Ages, was best suited for combat and dueling. The aptly named cut-and-thrust sword is designed to cut and thrust. The rapier was designed with similar intent, made to work like a giant ice pick, so that you could fight in the crowded city streets of France and Italy. The modern sport of fencing was invented when a French blade was blunted – also called foiling the blade (this is where the word “foil” comes from).

So now you’re up-to-date on swords. But you know you want to learn more (and how could I blame you; swords are awesome!). In that case, you should join us for some upcoming events where you can learn the art of sword fighting (no prior experience necessary!). John Clements, one of the premier swordsmen of our age, will talk about the sword of the 13th century and the knights who wielded them (on Feb. 26) and teach you the Art of Defense in an evening workshop (on Feb. 27).

To take advantage of this special offer and reserve your spot, purchase your ticket at the HMNS Box Office or call 713.639.4629 and present coupon code $10offsc to receive $10 off your ticket. (Discount not available on online ticket purchases.)

MEDIEVAL LECTURE
13th Century Sword & Buckler: Origins of the Knightly Fighting Arts
John Clements, ARMA
Weds., Feb. 26, 6:30 p.m.

The liberal arts in medieval times were those subjects studied by a free man—who was free precisely because he was armed and trained in the fighting arts. Much of what is known of 13th-century sword and buckler training is documented in the only surviving fencing manual of the period. John Clements, martial arts historian and director of ARMA (Association for Renaissance Martial Arts), will describe the science of defense developed in this period, as well as the arms, armor and chivalric work of knights. This lecture will be followed by a live demonstration of medieval martial arts.
Click here to purchase tickets online.

ADULT CLASS
Introduction to the Sword
Thurs., Feb. 27, 6 p.m.
Tickets $75, Members $65

The sword is an important symbol of power—from the gladius of gladiators to the light saber of the Jedi. It has been used to change history. Whether leading a conquest of the Normans or to helping to secure the seed of democracy, the sword is an important symbol of martial skill. Thought of as a “lost art,” swordsmanship is still taught using the writing and illustrations passed down from Renaissance sword masters. Learn the basics of this martial art in this class lead by John Clements, director Association of Renaissance Martial Arts.
Click here to purchase tickets online.

THE SWORDSMAN: John Clements
John Clements is a leading authority on historical fencing and the world’s foremost instructor of Medieval and Renaissance fighting methods. As a long-time Western martial artist who has been studying historical fencing since 1980, John is the most prolific writer on the subject of historical fencing. He has practiced European cut-and-thrust swordplay and for more than thirty years, taught on it in 16 countries, and researched arms and armor on four continents. He instructs both nationwide as well as internationally.