Fantastic Field Trips: New Labs on Demand get kids closer to science in 2016

by Matti Hammett

If you’ve ever visited HMNS with a school group or on your own, you may have found yourself in the depths of the museum beneath the Morian Hall of Paleontology and thought to yourself one of these three things:

  1. Am I allowed to be down here? (Yes, of course you are!)
  2. Is this the hospital wing of the museum? (Absolutely not, though we do have a lot of first aid supplies for summer camp!)
  3. Why does it smell like coffee? (My office mate and I may or may not be addicted to very strong coffee…)

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I’ve overheard all of these questions and many more from my desk behind the glass window in the Lower Level Education Office. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the Lower Level isn’t a stark, desolate office area. It’s the Education Wing where we welcome visitors, offer Outreach presentations and Saturday Scout classes, conduct Xplorations Summer camps, and generally just have lots of fun learning! One of my favorite programs that we offer in the Lower Level classrooms is our Weekday Lab program. We have about 175 different hands-on Labs on Demand for school groups, home-school groups, and families.

If you spend enough time in the classroom area on the Lower Level, you may notice carts of eyeballs or polymers being rolled by, our animal alcove where you can see a live rattlesnake, or flecks of red liquid on the floor from one of our Blood Spatter labs. Some people might call these sights strange, but these things are just part of a normal day at the office to me! You may even get your hands on some of these items if you attend one of our lab programs… well, maybe not the rattlesnake.

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Dissection labs (for 5th grade and up) are a favorite among our students and instructors.

Julia Russell said, “My favorite lab to teach is shark dissection. Most students think of sharks as mindless killing machines because that’s how they’re frequently portrayed in the media. I love getting the opportunity to dispel these myths by letting students see and study sharks up close.”

Not only do we offer shark dissections, but we have 13 other dissections to choose from!

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Another popular choice are our Wildlife Labs, where our instructors bring out live animals and have students participate in activities to illustrate different animal adaptions, predator/prey relationships and varying habitats that animals live in depending on what lab you’re attending. Kids get the chance to interact with critters such as spiders, hermit crabs or even Madagascar hissing cockroaches. And get this – they LIKE it!

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Our Wildlife instructor, Melissa Hudnall, explained that one of her most popular lab activities was in her “Amphibians” lab. She takes two sets of hard boiled eggs – half of them peeled, half of them unpeeled – and soaks them overnight in food coloring. When the eggs are cut open, the “reptile” egg (which still has its shell intact to mimic the protection provided from scales) has barely absorbed the “pollutants.”

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When the “amphibian” egg (which had its shell removed) is cut open, it’s clear the “pollutants” were absorbed.

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Melissa uses this activity to discuss why amphibians are environmental indicators, and as she punnily states, “The kids were surprisingly EGGcited” to be a part of this activity.

These snippets are just a taste of all the labs that we can offer. To break it down, we offer six different lab themes in 33 classrooms with 175 lab topics to choose from.

There are so many different hands-on programs offered here at the Houston Museum of Natural Science! Let us enhance your core curriculum, making your science and history lessons come alive in fun and unique labs that bring self-directed exploration to your students. We’d love to see you in a program soon!

Editor’s Note: Matti Hammett is the HMNS Youth Education Programs Registrar.

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 12/14-12/20

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Tarum (age 8). 

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our brand-new Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty. 

La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas Now Open!
She’s been a symbol of hope, protection and comfort to her followers for almost 500 years, but why? What is it about her that has inspired millions throughout the Americas? La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 and changed his life. Today, her image represents not only a great miracle, but the identity of a nation of believers. Trace the story back to its origins in our limited engagement exhibition. 

Lecture – One Symbol, Many Visions: The Stories of Our Lady of Guadalupe by David Tavarez, Ph. D.
Tuesday, Dec. 15
6:30 p.m.
Our Lady went through multiple transformations, and our current views do not reflect how the Virgin of Guadalupe was seen in earlier times. Dr. David Tavarez will introduce you to the many faces of a beloved icon that now encompasses many aspects of Latin American identity. The evening will include a festive Our Lady of Guadalupe procession featuring indigenous regional costumes and banners, music and samples of sweet tamales and atole – a traditional milky corn drink.
This event is cosponsored by AIA, Houston Society with support from the Institute of Hispanic Culture.

Dinosaurs Alive! 3D Opens Tuesday, Dec. 15 
Dinosaurs Alive! 3D is a new global adventure of science and discovery – featuring the earliest dinosaurs of the Triassic Period to the monsters of the Cretaceous “reincarnated” life-sized for the giant screen. Audiences will journey with some of the world‘s preeminent paleontologists as they uncover evidence that the descendants of dinosaurs still walk (or fly) among us.

Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 12/7-12/13

Bust out your planners, calendars, and PDAs (if you are throwback like that), it’s time to mark your calendars for the HMNS events of this week! 

Last week’s featured #HMNSBlockParty creation is by Cameron (age 5). 

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Want to get your engineering handwork featured? Drop by our brand-new Block Party interactive play area and try your own hand building a gravity-defying masterpiece. Tag your photos with #HMNSBlockParty. 

BTS – HMNS Offsite Collections Storage
Monday, Dec. 7
1:30 p.m. & 6:00 p.m.
Millions of artifacts and specimens are housed at the Museum’s offsite collections storage. For the first time ever, HMNS is allowing the public to tour this facility. Participants will see old favorites no longer on display, like the shrunken heads from the Amazon, and new acquisitions that have not been seen by the public yet, including a giant African elephant. This truly behind-the-scenes tour of the museum collections will be led by Lisa Rebori, HMNS VP of collections. Participants will meet at HMNS and ride van to the offsite facility. This program is limited to adults and children age 12 and older. Reservations are required in advance. Space is very limited.

Special Exhibition La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas 
Opens Friday, Dec. 11
She’s been a symbol of hope, protection and comfort to her followers for almost 500 years, but why? What is it about her that has inspired millions throughout the Americas? La Virgen de Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego in 1531 and changed his life. Today, her image represents not only a great miracle, but the identity of a nation of believers. Trace the story back to its origins in our limited engagement exhibition.

 

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: this December, Orion Opens for the Geminid Meteor Shower

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Saturn is lost in the Sun’s glare this month.

Mercury briefly appears in the evening sky in the last two weeks of December and in early January. Look low in the west-southwest during twilight, just over the point of sunset, to find it.

Venus, Mars, and Jupiter are spreading apart in the morning sky this month. Right now, Venus is in the southeast at dawn, outshining everything but the sun and the moon.  Jupiter, not quite as bright as Venus but brighter than everything else, is high in south at dawn by New Year’s Eve. Mars is between Venus and Jupiter and much, much dimmer than those two.

The Summer Triangle sets in the west. Watch for the Great Square of Pegasus almost overhead at dusk now and in the west by Christmas. Taurus, the Bull, rises in the east.  Look for the Pleiades star cluster above reddish Aldebaran. Dazzling Orion, the Hunter, rises shortly after dusk (by month’s end, it is already up at dusk). As Orion enters the evening sky, we transition from the relatively dim evening skies of autumn to the brilliant stars of winter. We are beginning to face away from the center of the galaxy, looking at stars behind us in our own part of our galaxy (the Orion Spur).

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in December 2015:

Last Quarter: Dec. 3, 1:40 a.m.

New: Dec. 11, 4:29 a.m.

First Quarter: Dec. 18, 9:14 a.m.

Full: Dec. 25, 4:11 a.m.

The Geminid meteor shower peaks every year around mid-December. This year, it’s the night of Dec. 13 (although they’re active from Dec. 4 to 17). Unlike most meteor showers, the Geminids are debris from an asteroid, 3200 Phaethon, rather than a comet. The path of debris thus intersects Earth’s at a much shallower angle than a comet’s path would. This means we turn into the path, and thus start seeing meteors, much earlier in the night than most showers. You can look for meteors as early as 10:30 p.m. If you’re far from city lights, you’ll see one or two meteors per minute on average. The three-day-old moon will not interfere. Our George Observatory will be open Sunday night, Dec. 13, until 2 a.m. for observing the meteors.

At 10:48 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 21, the sun will appear overhead as seen from the Tropic of Capricorn, the farthest point south where this is possible. That’s because Earth’s North Pole is tilted as far as possible away from the sun at that time. That’s why this is our winter solstice, the day when we have more night and less daylight than any other. Below the equator, this is the summer solstice because the South Pole is tilted towards the sun as much as possible.

Although the shortest day (or the least daylight) occurs Dec. 21, the earliest sunset occurs for us about Dec. 1. This is because the sun’s apparent positon in our sky varies like a sine wave; there is little difference in the sun’s apparent height for about a month before and after the solstice. Due to Earth’s tilt, the sun does indeed take a shorter, lower path across the sky on Dec. 21 than on Dec. 1, but only by a little. Meanwhile, Earth is slightly accelerating as it approaches perihelion just after the new year. This makes both sunrise and sunset happen a little earlier each night during December. Near the solstice, this small effect can dominate. Since most of us sleep through sunrise and watch sunset, days will seem to lengthen from Dec. 1 to 21 when they are in fact still getting shorter.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement.

Clear Skies!