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.

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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!

unloading 1

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).

Science Starts with density and distance

A rousing game of “Will it Float?” occasionally played on The Late Show with David Letterman was really just an impressively popular density guessing game. In our recently added Science Start Outreach Program, Discovering Density, we play a similar game, predicting and testing to see what happens when you toss things into a tank of water. The Science Start program is for grades K-2 and travels to schools, daycares, scout groups, and more to educate students with hands-on learning experiences. 

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Sahil tests the hypothesis that a tiny metal car is denser than water and will sink.

The most fun results are the ones that surprise the young students, like a whiffle ball that will not sink even though it is full of holes, a Lego brick (you’ll have to test that one out for yourself), or liquids that can float on or sink through other liquids in a density column.

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Carolyn points out to a class at Passmore Elementary that an object that is floating must be touching the surface of the water in a presentation of the new Discovering Density program.

Making the distinction that density isn’t just about weight or mass or size but instead the comparison between the two can be a tricky concept at first. Similarly, very small and very large numbers, distances, and time scales can be difficult to grasp, so to make it a little easier, you could try holding a planet like Jupiter or maybe Neptune, if you prefer, as we model the vast distances of our solar system and think about scale in Space: Going the Distance.

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Carolyn points out the different types of liquids forming four distinct layers in the density column that she made during the presentation. The density column was given to the group’s teacher after the show so that students could watch it change over time.

Volunteers spread out with their planets to see the relative spaces between their orbits and explore what a model is, why it’s helpful, and what about the model isn’t quite as it is in real life. For our model to be to scale for both the sizes of the planets and for the distances between them is tricky—in a classroom-sized solar system, it’s going to be almost impossible to see most of the planets from most seats, and even the sun seems petite!

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Carolyn holds up a three-foot board that models the planet Jupiter. If Jupiter was just three feet across, the Sun would have to have a diameter of 23 feet!

Book Science Start for your school or scout group today by contacting Greta Brannan at (713) 639-4758 or outreach@hmns.org. For more information on HMNS outreach programs, click here.

12 Perks of Presenting HMNS Outreach

After bringing live animals, exotic insects, chemistry demos, and more to over 500 area schools and community organizations last year, the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Outreach Programs are ready to hit the road in 2015! It takes quite a village to bring science to almost 100,000 students in a year, and we are lucky to have an incredible, multi-talented group of presenters who work tirelessly to bring the wonders of HMNS to greater Houston and beyond.

While members of Team Outreach play a variety of roles all over the Museum, presenting Outreach Programs is one of the most exciting, fun, and rewarding jobs of all. Here are twelve of the best, most unique perks of being an Outreach presenter at the Houston Museum of Natural Science!

1. Getting to know all the neighborhoods and exploring the entire Houston area.

1. 2014 Map

Whether a school is 175 miles away in Temple, TX or down the street, HMNS Outreach Programs are committed to giving students a high-quality educational experience that they are sure to remember.

2. Hearing the “oohs” and “aahs” as Lycopodium ignites in front of a crowd.

2. Lycopodium

Lycopodium is a type of clubmoss, but its spores have a remarkable flammable quality often displayed in the opening act in the ConocoPhillips Science On Stage Cool Chemistry presentation!

3. Seeing the expression on a child’s face when you tell them they just touched fossilized poop.

3. Coprolite

Scientifically known as coprolite, fossilized poop is one of the highlights of the Chevron Earth Science On Wheels program!

4. Leading a group on a tour of the night’s sky.

4. Night Sky

The Discovery Dome brings the wonders of the Burke Baker Planetarium to you, including a live show detailing the celestial bodies visible in that very night’s sky!

5. Seeing that “a-ha!” moment when kids discover something new or solve a problem.

5. A-Ha!

All of our programs, such as Exploring Energy from the ConocoPhillips Science On Stage family pictured above, are interactive and hands-on to help promote learning and retention.

6. Seeing one child learning and then helping a friend understand the concept.

6. Butterfly

Each program, including the LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels Monarchs program shown above, comes with free TEKS-aligned curriculum to extend learning beyond the presentation.

7. Rolling through a drive thru with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a ferret.

7. Ferret

Programs like TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels and LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels travel with live animals, and on a hot Houston summer day, warm-blooded animals like Mina the ferret above need some air conditioning and refreshment, just like our presenters!

8. Returning to a school and getting recognized as “that science guy” or “the dinosaur lady.”

8. Dinosaur Lady

 It’s always great to see classes year-after-year at a school or at HMNS on a field trip, and being remembered lets us know they learned something during the previous visit!

9. Watching students touch specimens.

9. Dove

The hands-on nature of many of our presentations, as in TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels pictured above, makes for a memorable experience for all kids, allowing them to touch many things they have only ever seen in photos.

10. Watching kids encourage their friends to touch bugs because, “See? It’s not scary!” And seeing those apprehensive kids get just as excited by the end.

10. Tarantula

Our LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels critters, like Rosie the tarantula above, are great ambassadors for arthropods everywhere!

11. Getting asked for an autograph or a photo with a class after a show.

11. Autograph

Getting mobbed by kids after a presentation makes us feel like rock stars and really shows us they paid attention and enjoyed the show!

12. Thank you cards from appreciative students and teachers.

12. Thank You

A thank you card with a hand-drawn picture can make a great day even better! We keep as many as we can as a priceless, one-of-a-kind reward for a job-well-done.

To make the day of one of our terrific presenters, book an Outreach Program by calling Greta Brannan at (713) 639-4758 or emailing outreach@hmns.org!

Unmasking Everyday Superheroes with HMNS Outreach!

Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it actually is a bird, flying faster than most cars.

Superpowers, such as the Flash-like super speed of the peregrine falcon above, are abundant throughout the natural world and specifically highlighted by several specimens in the HMNS Outreach collection.

Superhero Hamilton

Meet Hamilton the blue-tongued skink, who has the ability to regrow most of his tail should it be separated from his body!

In addition to a stuffed peregrine falcon that travels with our Texas Wildlife program, the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels lineup is full of noteworthy unlikely heroes. Like Wolverine of X-Men, traveling specimens such as our blue-tongued skink from Reptiles & Amphibians or starfish from Invertebrates exhibit regeneration after loss of tail and limb, respectively.

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Vinny the vinegaroon has an awesome superpower, the ability to spray acid with his abdomen!

Our newest LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels program, Awesome Arachnids, gets your Spidey-Sense tingling with a few undercover superheroes. The program will bring out specimens such as an emperor scorpion, which glows electric blue under ultraviolet light, and a vinegaroon, which sprays an acetic acid and caprylic acid mixture from its abdomen when threatened. And don’t forget about the wall-crawling creatures that spawned Spiderman! Awesome Arachnids also features two tarantulas, who can climb with special retractable claws! 

Superheroes like Batman and Iron Man use science and technology to their advantage when fighting crime, and after a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage presentation, your knowledge of chemistry or physics can rival theirs! Learn about the super heat used to produce colors in fireworks with Cool Chemistry, or explore the tricks anyone can use to acquire super strength through simple machines with Motion Commotion!

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Stepping back in time 70 million years could have brought you face to face with these supersized T. rex teeth!

Very few superheroes have the ability to travel through time, but kids can harness this ability through Chevron Earth Science On Wheels! Shift back millions of years and explore the characteristics and adaptations of prehistoric life with Dinosaur Discovery, or combine time travel with super smarts in Know Your Rocks, in which students save the day by classifying different types of rocks.

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Children and adults alike love the Discovery Dome for its superb selection of shows, available in English and Spanish!

We certainly can’t forget about the superhero qualities of the men and women working in outer space. With hazards ranging from freezing temperatures to rapidly moving matter to a lack of air, outer space is a place fraught with danger. Learn more about the extremes of life in space and much more with our Discovery Dome, which features a wide selection of shows from the Burke Baker Planetarium!

Every hero has a story, and you can unmask your own with HMNS Outreach, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood science museum.

Contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758 to book your HMNS Outreach program today!