Sahil Patel: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sahil Patel discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and moved on to become an Ecoteen as he grew older. Now, he is an HMNS Outreach Presenter and a writer for the BEYONDbones blog.

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Patel teaches a children’s class about the density of various items for the Science Start Outreach Program. Interested in the Houston Museum of Natural Science since age 6, Patel hopes to share his excitement with other kids, cultivating their education through HMNS.

HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SP: I started attending camp when I was six years old. I didn’t start going to school until Kindergarten, but I would go to work with my mom every day. Every day at lunch time, we would go to either the zoo or the museum, depending on weather, and I was hooked. The real reason I came to camp is probably so my mom could get me out of her office, but I kept coming back because I just never had a bad time. There wasn’t a single class I didn’t enjoy.

HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SP: Every summer, I had to take the Space Commander class; I must have taken it at least four times. My favorite part was the Expedition Center mission to Mars or the Moon on Friday afternoon. I loved it so much that I had a birthday party mission one year! Every time, I tried to be on a different team inside and was mostly successful. My favorite of those had to be the CIMCOM team, which got to talk to mission control. Years later, when I was a Moran Ecoteen, I got to be a part of mission control for a summer camp mission and loved every second of that, too!

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As an Ecoteen in 2010, Patel interned with Paleontology Curator David Temple.

HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SP: I enjoyed the camps that used to take field trips; one of my favorites was called Thrills and Chills, and the physics-based camp ended with a trip to Astroworld on Friday! Sadly, neither Thrills and Chills nor Astroworld still exist. I also enjoyed the Senior Coastal Ecology class that would take daytrips to Galveston to study wildlife and various aspects of the gulf coast, but this camp was discontinued in the late 2000’s. But I’d say my favorite memory was from when I took Crime Scene Investigators one year. Friday afternoon of Crime Scene Investigators involves a crime scene that the Xplorations staff and Moran Ecoteens set up, and our class went about examining evidence and following clues to try and figure out who committed the crime. Low and behold, it was our TA, who took off out the door and down the hall before he was captured and brought back to the classroom to explain himself.

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HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SP: I’ve taken quite a few of the camps that are still offered today, but one that I didn’t get to that I always wanted to take was Wizard Science Academy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released on my tenth birthday, and I was obsessed from the opening chorus. The Potter-themed summer camps weren’t created until I was too old to go to camp, and I always felt like I missed out on something amazing. That was confirmed for me when my brother took Wizard Science Academy four years ago and came home with a wand, a broomstick, and a Triwizard Tournament championship.

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As an Ecoteen, Patel was present for the blooming of Lois the Corpse Flower in 2010.

HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SP: I guess you could say that I never left. Since I started summer camp at age 6, the only summer I did not work at the museum was when I was 14, because I thought I was ineligible for the Moran Ecoteen Program at that age. HMNS has always held a special place in my heart, from the moment I saw the massive T. rex in the old Glassell Hall. The museum has always made me question what I know, motivated me to learn further, and inspired me to pursue a career in science. Over the years, I fell in love with this place as I learned more and more about it. I got to a point where a summer without HMNS was a summer wasted. I wanted to show others why I was so passionate about this place and what made HMNS so special to me. Coming to work here was a no-brainer.

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With HMNS Outreach, Patel teaches children TEKS-based science skills with the Chevron Earth Science on Wheels: Dinosaur Discovery program.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SP: Xplorations Summer Camp has had nothing but a positive impact on my life and thousands of others. The museum set me up for success by instilling in me a love of learning at a young age; Xplorations made science fun! With a summer’s worth of learning at camp, I was ready to go when school started up again in August, and I had all kinds of new, useful knowledge to impress my classmates. But most importantly, the summers I spent at Xplorations opened a door for me to a true passion: teaching. Xplorations led me to a career at HMNS. I wouldn’t be here today without it.

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Even hard at work at his desk in the outreach office, scheduling educational programs, Patel has a good time. He can’t imagine working anywhere else.

 

Kaylee Gund: Being Natural

Youth Education Sales dynamo Kaylee Gund has taken a wild, winding path to the Houston Museum of Natural Science, and she couldn’t be happier that she’s here.

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Kaylee Gund smiles as her favorite dinosaur, Lane the Triceratops, lurks behind her in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. While Gund was visiting South Dakota on a family trip, she was able to take a side trip to visit the Black Hills Institute while Lane was being prepped for display at HMNS.

Gund’s passion for science runs deep. Right after she began interning with HMNS in 2010, she made an extra trip to the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota and saw the Triceratops Lane while it was getting prepped for display in the Morian Hall of Paleontology. For Halloween this past year, she dressed up as a carbon nanotube. In December 2014, she even went on a dig looking for shark teeth in Midlothian, TX.

As a kid, Gund’s family moved around a lot because her dad “just liked moving.” She was born in Michigan and lived abroad in countries like Brazil and the Netherlands before coming to Houston when she was 13.

“I remember coming [to the Museum] with my family when I first moved here, but I never imagined that I would work here. My favorite part of the Museum was the [Welch Hall of] Chemistry,” Gund said. “I loved the giant periodic table with samples of all the different elements in there.”

Gund’s first stint at HMNS began in 2010 when she applied for a summer internship sponsored by ExxonMobil. Her job as summer camp resource manager was “a perfect match.”

“Before I started at the Museum, I worked for a company that was moving all of their files to electronic versions. We had all of this paper, and it was my job to shred the old files. At the end, I had about 10 huge transparent bags full of shredded paper. It looked like snow!” Gund said. “So of course I built a snowman out of the bags. I took a Sharpie and drew a snowman face on one of the bags, but nobody got it. They were just too grown up!”

Xplorations summer camp proved to be a much better fit. As a summer camp resource manager, part of Gund’s job was to do the shopping for summer camp. It was refreshing to work in an environment that was a lot more fun, she said, and there was hardly ever a dull moment.

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Kaylee poses with the entrance to the HMNS Hall of Ancient Egypt, one of her favorite collections in the Museum.

After a few more summers working with Xplorations, Gund reached a major decision in 2013: she applied to the Peace Corps and moved to Africa.

Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French. Considering she graduated from the University of Dallas with a degree in chemistry and concentration studies in French, this, too, seemed like a good match. On July 4, 2013, Gund began what should have been a 27-month stay in Guinea.

Gund had her own hut in the village of Niandankoro that was “about three meters in diameter, complete with thatched roof and ceiling made of empty rice sacks,” she said. Electricity and running water were luxuries that she learned to live without. As Gund put it, “[those were] things that you almost didn’t think about after a while because you just didn’t need [them].”

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Gund’s hut in the village of Niandankoro.

Gund fondly recalls her classes at the village’s school, where she taught chemistry for students in seventh through tenth grade. Her students affectionately called her “Madame Chimie,” or Ms. Chemistry.

While typical lessons in the school called for rote learning, with students copying down notes from a blackboard, Gund was able to lead her classes with several experiments to aid learning and retention, and these experiments were some of her favorite memories.

For one class, she was able to import litmus paper to test pH, and her students tested everything from water and juice to saliva. On another day, she built an electrolyzer out of a jam jar, some batteries and wire. To review organic chemistry for tenth-grade board exams, Gund made salt dough and bought toothpicks to fashion molecule kits for each student, finishing with one giant alkane model that spanned the whole classroom.

Gund’s tenth grade students make organic molecules using salt dough she made and toothpicks. This was an extra review session as her students prepared to take their end of year examinations.

 

After a year in Niandankoro, Gund left the village in early July 2014 to train new Peace Corps recruits before returning to the United States to visit family before starting her second year of service. She never made it back.

The ebola outbreak in western Africa forced the Peace Corps to halt its operations in Guinea 14 months into Gund’s 27-month tour.

“We got evacuated, not so much because of the risk of us getting ebola, but it was that all of the medical centers and all of the hospitals were so busy and preoccupied with ebola that if one of us broke a leg, there wouldn’t have been the necessary staff available to take care of that,” Gund said. “[The Peace Corps] determined that it wasn’t a good idea for us to remain there.”

She never got to say a proper goodbye.

While Gund waited to hear if she would be able to go back, she contacted Nicole Temple, HMNS’ Vice President of Youth Education, for some work and spent some time teaching lab classes. When it became clear that Gund was not going to be able to return to Guinea, she applied for a job as a Youth Education Sales Assistant and began work mid-September 2014.

“I really like having the opportunity to share with others about HMNS,” Gund said. “I think everything here is interesting. I love being able to tell people about our exhibits and what we offer.”

Gund poses in front of a model of a giant squid next to the Strake Hall of Malacology.

Gund poses in front of a model of a giant squid next to the Strake Hall of Malacology.

For the next eight months, Gund assisted teachers with booking field trips to the Museum. She thought of it as a puzzle, matching interests with what the museum has to offer.

“My favorite part about it was having teachers basically give me free reign. They would say, ‘Oh, I’m an AP chemistry teacher’ or ‘a pre-K teacher,’ and then I would work something out that would fit their age range and their interests. We have such a variety to offer, so it was cool to be able to pair things, like [the Farish Hall of] Texas Wildlife with Tiny Giants,” Gund said.

Less than a year later, Gund received a promotion and now is the Youth Education Sales Curriculum Coordinator and Data Analyst. For all of the museum’s permanent exhibit halls and special exhibits, Gund writes curriculum correlated with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills objectives for teachers to use in class before and after a field trip to the Museum. She relishes the creative parts of her job, using her teaching experiences to come up with innovative ways to reinforce material.

“I’m really glad that [this job] happened. To this day, I walk into the museum every morning and find something new to be amazed at,” Gund said. “I don’t think I have a favorite part, really. I like all of it.”

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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We can’t ignore the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: World Ocean Day aims to raise concern for plastic pollution

I once heard there is an island of plastic the size of Texas floating in the North Pacific. Turns out this is just a myth.

The truth is much, much worse.

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is not an island. You can’t stand on it or walk across it. It’s more like a cloud of suspended plastic particles ranging from the size of a person to microscopic. This patch isn’t just the size of Texas. It’s nearly as large as the United States, and it’s one of five oceanic areas with problems just as bad.

They’re called gyres, massive whirlpools that circulate the waters of the north and south Pacific, the north and south Atlantic, and the Indian Ocean, and all five of them are choked with plastic pollution. Scientists estimate there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, or six times more plastic by dry weight than zooplankton, the most basic and common marine fauna that ultimately feeds the entire oceanic food web.

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The Great Pacific Garbage Patch stretches for thousands of miles across the north Pacific.

“Plastics have only been around for 100 years or so, and they’re already a huge problem,” said Shayla Andreas, Houston Zoo staff. “Plastic isn’t bad. It’s not evil. It has allowed for medical advances and other health applications. It’s just being overproduced.”

Think about all the plastic things you put into the trash can after using them only once. Soda straws. Water bottles. Coffee mixers. Grocery bags. Netting. Fishing line. Food wrappers. The purpose of this plastic is to keep your food clean and make access to it more convenient, but the plastic never goes away. It never degrades; it just breaks into smaller and smaller pieces until it’s tiny enough for marine life to swallow.

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Here’s where the plastic begins to affect not only our oceans, but ourselves. Plastics contain toxic chemicals and have the ability to absorb other compounds, which both leach out of the plastic over time. Fish eat the plastic, as do turtles, birds and whales, and if it doesn’t get caught up in the digestive tract and disrupt the absorption of nutrients, then the chemicals in the plastic inevitably poisons them. Fish and creatures pass the plastics in their guts on to the larger predators, until eventually, you have a whopper mackerel some fisherman pulls out of the ocean for sushi, its belly full of the plastic it has collected from the bellies of other fish, flesh tainted with chemicals that have entered its bloodstream. No one wants to eat that.

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Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup, according to Eriksen. Oceanic gyres expel plastics into currents that eventually reach shorelines.

The point is, the plastic that’s meant to protect us could ultimately poison us. The greatest problem, according to Marcus Eriksen, Director of Research for the 5 Gyres research project, are microplastics, specifically microbeads that lately have appeared in cosmetic facial cleansers. These beads, no larger than a fleck of dirt, are used a single time as an exfoliant, then washed down the drain and into the sewers, which in turn enter watersheds that feed into the ocean. 5 Gyres claims this is the most dangerous source of plastic pollution, and Andreas agrees. Because of their minute size, microplastics affect the most marine life. Small fish can ingest the particles as well as some of the largest predators.

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Microplastics are the greatest threat to the health of the ocean.

“The smaller the plastics are, the worse the problem is,” Andreas said. “Especially for baleen whales that eat krill. They filter out the water and the krill stays in the baleen, but so does the plastic.”

Cleanup of microplastics appears next to impossible, even for 20-year-old environmentalist Boyan Slat, Dutch inventor of a groundbreaking gyre cleanup array and founder of The Ocean Cleanup. His array involves a passive, angled catch system that floats on the surface of the ocean and uses the motion of gyre currents to funnel plastic into its vertex, where a solar-powered conveyor constantly lifts the pollution out of the water and into a single container.

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20-year-old Dutchman Boyan Slat presents his proposal to deploy a giant plastic-catching array in the Pacific Ocean.

The mission of the non-profit is to deploy an enormous 100-kilometer-long array in the north Pacific, which Slat estimates will remove half of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years. Slat plans to deploy a smaller pilot array off the coast of Tsushima, an island between Japan and South Korea, in 2016. At 2000 meters in length, it will still be twice as long as the record-holder for the largest floating structure deployed in the ocean in history, the Tokyo Mega-Float, a floating airport.

But Slat’s array provides no solution for microplastics and smaller particles which will elude his array. His invention offers a promising, cost-effective, and feasible beginning to cleaning up the mess, but it won’t solve the problem completely, which Andreas believes starts at the point of sale for every consumer and with responsible manufacturing.

“It comes down to researching the products that you use. You have to care,” Andreas said. “And you have to get them to care about it. Taking initiative, behavioral change, is so easy to do. People have to make a concerted effort not to get them.”

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Microbeads used in cosmetic facial cleansers are washed down the drain and enter the ocean via watersheds.

Consumers should consider choosing biodegradable alternatives to products that contain microbeads. Exfoliants should be made from natural materials.

Word is beginning to spread about the direness of the plastic pollution situation. The Houston Museum of Natural Science recently celebrated the United Nations-established World Oceans Day, an event that drew out about 2,000 people. Representative faculty from Rice University and Texas A&M University emphasized the importance of keeping plastic out of the ocean, and guests had an opportunity to estimate the amount of biomass living in the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and look inside the stomach of a thresher shark specimen.

Code Pink's Jodie Evans at the Tedx - Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference

Code Pink’s Jodie Evans at the Tedx – Great Pacific Garbage Patch Conference.

Plastic may make human life more convenient, but single-use plastics have become a problem that can no longer be ignored. The only viable solution may be better choices to prevent plastics from entering the ocean in the first place. Reuse plastic bottles or take your own refillable water container. Choose to bring your own reusable bags to the grocery store. Never toss plastic or any garbage into the environment. And always, always recycle.