Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 11/16-11/22

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! 

Jingle Tree 3

Film Screening – The Northern Lights: Nature’s Spectacle with Pal Brekke
Monday, Nov. 16
7:00 p.m.
Imagine what it must have been like for the first northern inhabitants to raise their eyes to the dazzle of the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis still casts its mysterious and colorful spell over us, and Norwegian solar physicist Dr. Pal Brekke has captured that enduring fascination in a new documentary, The Northern Lights: A Magic Experience.

Sip ‘n See Open House & Luncheon
Tuesday, Nov 17. 
11:30 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.
HMNS at Sugar Land
Next up is our open house Sip n See, Tuesday, November 17, from 11:30 am to 1:30 pm. This fabulous strolling lunch event will allow you, your friends and associates to see the trees up close and perhaps even “pre-buy” the one you fall in love with!

Lecture – Fire Masters: Cooking and Feasting 10,000 Years Ago by Andrew McCarthy
Tuesday, Nov. 17
6:30 p.m.
The food we eat and its preparation define us as humans as few things do. Archaeologists theorize that cooking and feasting enabled the human brain to expand. Excavations on Cyprus reveal the presence of large stone ovens much larger than a single tribe required, apparently for the purpose of sharing feasts in the Neolithic period dating to 10,000 years ago. Dr. Andrew McCarthy will explore how cooking and feasting may be decisive steps toward the development of civilization. Perhaps the origin of our holiday feasts is result of humankind³ greatest prehistoric inventions.

Drink and be Merry Happy Hour and Auction Closing
Thursday, Nov. 19
5:30 – 8:30 p.m.
HMNS at Sugar Land
We’ll wrap things up with a cool Happy Hour, Thursday, November 19, an evening filled with cocktails, tree viewing, on-line bidding and a fabulous live auction. All bids close that evening at 8:00 pm!

Class – Atlatl Workshop: Stone Age Spear Slinging
Saturday, Nov. 21
9:00 a.m.
Journey into prehistory by literally chucking the past! Experimental archaeologist Dr. August Costa will introduce you to the science and prehistory of hand-cast projectiles and biomechanics of their use. Participants will build their own cane dart and learn how construct throwers. After instruction on using the Stone Age spear-throwe–the atlatl, participants will fling full-scale replicas at stationary targets. The class will culminate in a tournament competition, with a sharp grand prize.

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Ecoteens build model artifacts for Block Party, opening soon

by John Pederson and Marce Stayer

The Aztecs, one of the greatest Mesoamerican cultures, had all the hallmarks of an advanced civilization. One of their most famous structures, the Templo Mayor, graces the Aztec portion of the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. It is a fantastic temple complex, the main religious center of the Aztec capital, and is a feat of architectural genius.

Aztec pyramid complete!

A true-color version of a model Templo Mayor will grace the demonstration shelves of Block Party, HMNS’s new interactive exhibit. And it was built by Moran Ecoteens

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is building a new exhibit called Block Party inspired by the materials used in the construction industry. Curated models of exhibit hall pieces (and visitor-submitted ones) will be on display at the new exhibit. So when the Moran Ecoteens were presented the task of making some of them, an Aztec temple was a popular choice. An image of a temple as inspiration was printed out, and we were ready to build…or so we thought.

John and Connor constructing the pyramid

John and Connor solve building support problems while constructing the pyramid.

Turns out, not all toy building blocks are useful for this purpose. And after we grabbed enough bricks to make the first two exterior layers of the temple (e.g. the Step Pyramid at Saqqara has six “layers”), it was all we could do to prevent the third level from collapsing under its own weight. (To save bricks, we had only built the outside of each layer, leaving the inside hollow.) Eventually, over the course of several days, I worked out a system of struts, columns, and crossties to hold the layers together; the hollow inside was now full of scaffolding. This allowed us to construct a model with accurate dimensions, while reflecting realistic building techniques. The Aztec temple walls were stone encased in painted plaster; our temple reflects this with rigid supports enclosed by a decorative outside shell.

John P. and Aztec pyramid 2

John stands with his model Aztec pyramid built from plastic blocks.

Our multicolored model is the prototype of a future model of the Templo Mayor. The new one will be made of realistically-colored bricks and have a simpler brick-laying scheme, more similar to the Aztec inspiration. Hopefully, those who see it will appreciate both the spirit of the Aztec culture and the engineering genius that defines the monument.


Cream of the Science Crop: Becoming an Ecoteen

You might be wondering how you can get involved doing cool projects for the museum like the Block Party demos. Here’s some information and application advice directly from Marce Stayer, director of the Ecoteen program.

The Moran Ecoteens are the museum’s teen volunteer program, open to teens ages 14 to 17 and rising ninth grade through rising 11th grade. Teens may apply beginning in December by sending their contact information to Stayer. You’ll be asked to provide your name, street address, a phone number and an email where they can be reached. The first week in January, information packets and applications are sent out to all who apply. Applicants will be asked to include a résumé, a letter of recommendation from a current teacher and an essay on the teen’s favorite area of science. The essay can be related to artifacts in our permanent exhibit halls, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re interested, work hard to write well! We always receive more applications than slots available for this very competitive program.

Completed applications are due Feb. 28. As applications are turned in, teens are invited to schedule an interview. The process must be complete by the second week in March.

Dimetrodon skull and skull

Ecoteens built this model Dimetrodon skull for Block Party, as well.

Selected teens are required to volunteer for one two-week session during the summer. Xplorations summer camp runs on a two-week-on, one-week-off schedule and Ecoteens may choose from these two-week sessions. A new Ecoteen is required to volunteer in the classroom as his or her first assignment. At the end of each week, the teen’s performance is graded by his teacher and turned in to me. If his performance is satisfactory, the Ecoteen may volunteer for additional weeks and have opportunities to work in other areas.

In addition to classroom assignments, Ecoteens are trained to work the touch carts and permanent halls throughout the museum and some are allowed to work in the Special Exhibit halls. They are trained by master docents from the adult volunteer guild for these assignments. They also give science demonstrations to the classes during camp sessions. We have movable demos in Chemistry and Physics, we have a catapult and trebuchet demo, and this past summer, one of the Ecoteens wrote a biology demo called “Microscope Safari” and another created a Morse code demonstration.

Lastly, the Ecoteens help the Youth Education department by working on various crafts that are used during camp — wands and hats for Wizard Academy, belts for Star Warriors Academy, plaster footprints, teeth and claws for the various paleo classes, giant T. rex footprint cut-outs, complete skeletons made out of paper bones, and whatever the classes need. We also write and perform the CSI crime scene on Fridays and put on the Wizard Academy Triwizard tournament. In short, we jump in wherever we are needed!

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, now’s the time to ask for an application so you can get started and be competitive. Best of luck!

Editor’s note: John Pederson is a Moran Ecoteen Coordinator and high school student. Marce Stayer’s official title is Director of the Moran Ecoteen Volunteer Center.

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A Symbol of Culture: Francs Guinéens Paint a Picture of Life in Guinea

by Kaylee Gund

During a recent visit to the Museum’s offsite collections storage, one carving in particular caught my eye — the Nimba (D’mba). After living in Guinea for over a year, I immediately honed in on the familiar polished wood of the Nimba among the other West African pieces.


The Nimba.

The Nimba is a symbol of feminine power and fertility, carried on someone’s shoulders around the fields to ensure a bountiful harvest. It wasn’t one of the traditions in the region where I lived, but I still saw the Nimba almost every day in my village on the corner of the 5,000 FG (franc guinéen) note.


The Nimba appears on the corner of a 5,000 FG note.

Among many other traditional symbols, the Nimba has become an expression of national pride, as evidenced by the Guinean bank’s use of it on currency and as its logo. Guinean currency is an interesting mix of national and local identity. Each denomination represents a different culturally distinct region of the country, showing important symbols and economic activities for that region.


A gold mining operation appears on the back of a 500 FG note, paying homage to the major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture.

Haute Guinée, the eastern plateau, is featured on the 500 FG, complete with an image of gold mining on the back. A major source of income for the Siguiri prefecture, gold mining was also an occasional source of exasperation for schoolteachers, as our students would often leave for months at a time during a gold rush and “cherchent l’or,” or “search for gold.”


As you’ve probably noticed, the number of zeros behind monetary amounts in Guinea can be a bit intimidating. Pictured above is a whopping 16,600 FG, worth a little over $2 in the U.S.

What can all this money buy?


Bags of clean drinking water are sold for 500 FG each. Drinking water from the well is ill advised, so this is a worthwhile investment at $0.07.


At the peak of mango season, everyone has more fruit than they know what to do with. It spoils fast with no refrigeration, so piles of mangoes are sold for 2,000 FG (less than $0.30).


Prepared food, like this rice with potato leaf sauce, costs between 5,000 and 7,000 FG for a plate (around $1).

So many mundane things require money that it’s easy to forget what an incredible symbol it can be. Guinean currency gives a glimpse into the many traditions of its different regions, and while there is occasionally ethnic strife between groups and the road to democracy is still rocky, the entire nation is unified in using Guinean francs.

Culture is an incredible thing, and we’re lucky enough to have access to a rich treasure trove of it: from Ancient Egypt to the Amazonian rainforest, even the smallest things can hold great significance.

Next time you’re about to spend a dollar, take a look at what’s on it. You might be surprised!

Editor’s Note: Kaylee Gund is in Youth Education Sales at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. During her time in the Peace Corps, Gund was placed in Guinea to teach chemistry in the country’s national language, French.

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Mark Your Calendars for these events happening at HMNS 11/9-11/15

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! 


Lecture – The Fastest Evolving Regions of the Human Genome by Katherine Pollard
Wednesday, Nov. 11
6:30 p.m. 
Although a child can tell the difference between a chimp and a man, identifying the specific DNA mutations that make us human is one of the greatest challenges of biology. The genomic sequence is approximately 3 billion letters long, with millions of mutations and rearrangements specific to humans. Using computational algorithms to compare our DNA to that of chimpanzees, other mammals, and Neanderthal and Denisovan fossils, we learned that the human genome did not evolve especially fast. Instead, it seems that a few mutations in critical places had big effects. Most of these “Human Accelerated Regions” are not genes, and science has no clue to their function when they were discovered a decade ago. New techniques in stem cell biology, genome editing, and high-throughput molecular biology are allowing us to discover the functions of the fastest evolving regions of the human genome and dissect how individual DNA mutations altered these functions to make us human. Dr. Katherine Pollard is a Senior Investigator at the Gladstone Institutes and Professor of Biostatistics and Human Genetics at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Pollard’s lab develops statistical and computational methods for the analysis of massive biological datasets, with an emphasis on evolutionary genomics of humans and the human microbiota. She pioneered the comparative genomic approach to scan genomes of related species to identify regions that are evolving with different rates or patterns in a particular lineage. Using this technique, her lab identified the fastest evolving regions in the human genome and in the DNA of many living and ancestral species.

This lecture is sponsored by The Leakey Foundation.

World Trekkers – Thailand
Friday, Nov. 13
6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
Last World Trekkers of the year! Featuring traditional Muay Thai boxing performances by Houston Muay Thai, Thai themed painting with Young Picassos, photo ops, a living Buddha statue, exotic animals, arts & crafts, food trucks and more, you don’t need a plane ticket to visit Thailand this year! Our World Trekkers program is a series of cultural festivals for the whole family. Buy tickets now!

World Trekkers generously underwritten by GDF Suez Energy Resources.

Cookies with Santa and Event Kickoff
HMNS at Sugar Land
Saturday Nov. 14
10 a.m. – 1 p.m.
The event kicks off with our family friendly Cookies with Santa, Saturday, November 14. It’s your first chance to view the trees and catch Santa during an early holiday visit to Sugar Land. Be sure to bring your camera to snap some candids!


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