HMNS in the Classroom: Amazing arthropods model for middle schoolers

Editor’s Note: This post was written by HMNS Outreach Presenter Sahil Patel.

Those expecting a typical runway show were in for a surprise; the models all had at least six legs, nobody was showing off the latest fall collection, and the paparazzi consisted of a group of art students at Johnston Middle School.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

A student concentrates while sketching one of the eight legs on Peanut, the Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula. Peanut was very cooperative and stood still the whole day for the classes.

HMNS’ LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels traveled to Christina Gutierrez Gonzalez’s art class October 1-2 to model for a group of talented middle school artists. Exotic specimens from the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s insect zoo spent the days playing muse as the students learned about the arthropods and practiced their sketching.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

A student smiles while observing a Giant African Millipede attempt to escape its plexiglass enclosure. While it is just a little too small to get out right now, this millipede is expected to grow up to one foot long.

In February 2013, Gonzalez booked the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels program for the same purpose, and after the presentation yielded fun and fantastic artwork, she decided to try it again, this time with bugs.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

A student sketches a Giant Prickly Stick, who is just trying to blend in with his stick. This species of walking stick will curl its abdomen and mimic a scorpion if threatened.

Many students got the chance to draw multiple of the five live and five once-living arthropods present.

HMNS Bugs on Wheels

A student colors in the wings of a Blue Morpho butterfly. While the butterfly’s upper wings are a brilliant, bright blue, the undersides are a darker brown with eye spots.

While the bugs lounged around, the students were hard at work, carefully drawing outlines in their sketchbooks and filling in gaps with pencils.

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

Two students draw the outline of Stewart, the Giant Long-Legged Katydid. This species of katydid may be the largest and loudest in the world, but they are herbivorous and very gentle; Stewart was a very good model!

The event was a hit once again. One young man stopped the HMNS presenters as they left for the day and gave them a thumbs up, saying, “Thanks for the awesome sixth period!”

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

A student colors in the legs of Peanut with alternate bands of black and yellow. Peanut, like all arachnids, has eight legs and two main body segments.

Bugs On Wheels and our other Outreach programs, such as TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels, ConocoPhillips Science On Stage, and Chevron Earth Science On Wheels, bring the wonders of the Houston Museum of Natural Science to you through hands-on and interactive presentations. For further information on these programs and more, visit our HMNS Outreach website or send us an email at outreach@hmns.org!

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

A student shows off his finished rendition of an Atlas Beetle behind the specimen itself. While its horns look scary, these beetles are not harmful to humans and are often kept as pets.

For more information on HMNS’ outreach programs, click here.

For more information on LyondellBasell Bugs on Wheels, click here.

About the author of this post:
Sahil has worked for HMNS in some capacity each summer since 2007 with the Moran Ecoteen Program and Xplorations Summer Camps. He quite literally grew up at the Museum; Sahil and his mom made biweekly trips at lunchtime until he started school at age 5, and he was a regular camper in Xplorations from ages 6-13. In 2014, he was hired full-time as Outreach Presenter, a job where his friends think he spends all day playing with alligators, tarantulas, and dinosaur fossils. He doesn’t like to contradict them.

Bringing the wonder to you: Science on Stage

We’ve got permanent exhibit halls, special exhibitions and an entire basement full of classrooms for camp and education. But did you know that we can bring HMNS to you?

HMNS outreach programs — which include Science on Stage, Docents To Go, Wildlife on Wheels, Discovery Dome, Bugs on Wheels and more — can be booked for school appearances, youth groups, or nearly anything else you can dream up.

Our largest program, Science on Stage, can serve an audience of up to 250 people, and offers three compelling programs: Exploring Energy, Cool Chemistry and Motion Commotion.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach Programs

Each program lasts about 45 minutes and can be customized for certain age groups or group sizes. Each program includes live demonstrations and strives to make learning visual by bringing student volunteers on stage and weaving a question-and-answer portion throughout. HMNS provides all the supplies needed for each program and manages clean-up — how great of a house guest are we?!

Youth Educator Carolyn Leap walked us through the Cool Chemistry program. “We start off demonstrating chemical reactions versus physical reactions, usually through combustion. Things on fire on stage usually get people’s attention.”

“In this program, the audience learns how fireworks function and engage in color-changing reactions, as well as experimenting with water-absorbing polymers,” Leap explained. “And, depending on the age of the audience, we make our own slime.”

Leap continued, “We use a concentrated form of hydrogen peroxide to create a foam reaction we call Elephant’s Toothpaste.”

“We dip all sorts of stuff in liquid nitrogen with the assistance of our student volunteers, who love to shatter frozen flowers and dunk balloons,” she said.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach ProgramsHMNS’ catalogue of outreach programs covers many fields, from life sciences with Wildlife on Wheels and Bugs on Wheels to anthropology with Docents to Go to our Discovery Dome portable planetarium  — and much more, thanks to a wealth of programming.

Most of our Science on Stage programs are hosted by Leap, who was this year named Educator of the Year by the Texas Association of Museums.

Science On Stage - HMNS Outreach ProgramsTo reserve Science on Stage for your students or group and get introduced to one of the best educators Texas has to offer, call 713-639-4766 or click here.

New Addition to the Cockrell Butterfly Center!

spider 003
Phyllium giganteum
Creative Commons License
photo credit: emills1

Today was an exciting day here at the Butterfly Center, as we welcomed a new species, Phyllium giganteum. This is a type of walking stick or phasmid that is native to Southeast Asia. We have a relative here already, Phyllium celebicum. We have enjoyed them immensely as they are very attractive on display and calm enough to go out with our Bugs on Wheels program and visit children. People are absolutely taken aback by how much they resemble a leaf, and most visitors are drawn to this particular insect since it resembles such a harmless object.

Well, if you were blown away by our original leaf mimics, hold on to your hats and meet Phyllium gigateum! While celebicum can reach a modest 2-3 inches, giganteum is an impressive 4-5 inches long! The flaps on skin surrounding their legs and abdomen are very broad with brown edges that match a dying leaf.  You really need to meet these guys in person!

Well, I should say girls. This species is parthenogenic in captivity, meaning they don’t need to mate to have babies. Males are rarely seen, even in the wild. Each female can lay a couple hundred eggs which take about 5 -6 months to develop.  The eggs are dropped to the ground by the female who dares not leave the safety of the canopy. When the nymphs hatch, they scurry up the tree, hopefully fast enough to avoid being on someone’s menu.

You may be wondering why these phasmids have such a camo-advantage while other harmless insects are much easier to spot. If an insect is lacking in the camo department, you can bet it has one of many other safety features including: being able to run or fly very quickly (cockroach), having  a very hard exoskeleton or one covered in spines (beetle), being poisonous or distasteful to predators (lubber grasshopper), having the ability to emit or even project a noxious chemical (swallowtail caterpillar), or the ability to mimic something dangerous or show a scary display(giant prickly stick). An insect’s life is pretty much all about escaping predators among other dangers of the natural world! Phyllium can do nothing else mentioned above, so it’s all about the camouflage for them!

spider 004
a giganteum nymph
Creative Commons License photo credit: emills1

Caring for these insects is easy. I only have to meet their basic needs of food, warm temperature, and high humidity. Luckily, they will eat a variety of plants that can easily be found right here in Houston. Since these insects are parthenogenic, raising them should be a snap! We hope to have them as a permanent fixture at the Butterfly Center for years to come.

I hope you will come see them on display or be excited to have one visit your child’s classroom in the very near future. Fall is upon us now and winter will be here before you know it, so bugs everywhere will be chilling out for the season, not to be seen again until spring. So if you want to see some great bugs, native and exotic, pay us a visit! Until next time, happy bug watching!

A day in the life of “Bugs on Wheels”

Bugs on Wheels” is the ever-so-popular outreach program that sweeps Erin and me away from the office on many days.  Our very first program was on Feb. 13, 2006 and needless to say, it was a HIT!  If you have ever wondered what goes on at a “Bugs on Wheels,” wonder no more because you are about to go on a trip with us right now. 

On a typical morning, Erin and I get to the office around 7:00 or 7:30.  We have to take care of our other jobs before we can hit the road.  Erin sorts through the insect zoo while I release butterflies. 

Next, we have to get all the critters ready to go.  All of the bugs that we take with us live in the containment room, so we do not have to take any away from the beautiful displays in the entomology hall.  Everyone gets loaded up in their critter carriers and we stack them all in a large Rubbermaid container with wheels. 

Then we are out to my car and on the road.  We have traveled as far away as Crosby and as close as just around the corner.  Set up is really easy, so we typically get to a school 10-15 minutes early.  Normally, we have to sign in at the front office where we almost always get bombarded with students and teachers asking “What is that??”  We prefer to set up in a classroom away from others, but there have been times when we had to fight the noisy crowds in a library or a cafeteria. 

Typically we do 30 minute presentations, especially if the students are younger than 3rd grade.  The older kids tend to sit still longer, allowing us to gab away for 45 minutes to an hour.  Once the kids enter the class, the first challenge is to sit them all in nice straight rows.  This part is hard for kids of all ages because they are distracted by the bugs of course! 

Erin and I take turns introducing ourselves to each class.  We tell them that we are from the Houston Museum of Natural Science and that we work in the Cockrell Butterfly Center.  We used to ask if anyone has been to HMNS, but we stopped doing that because every kid wants to tell a story of their visit here. 

We always like to ask the kids questions about insects before we begin; stuff like: How many legs? (6) How many body parts? (3: head, thorax, abdomen) What do they use to smell? (antennae) What kind of skeleton do they have? (exoskeleton)  Do they have wings? (some do) 

After this introduction, Erin and I turn almost invisible because the bugs totally steal the show! 

First, we talk about all of the insects: hissing cockroaches, 3 walking sticks, deer – horned stag beetle, and the giant long – legged katydid.  I have to say the most impressive is the katydid which the kids really love.  We bring up important facts about each bug and ask lots of questions to the audience.  Things like camouflage, mimicry, environment, adaptations, and diet are among some of the things we like to talk about. 

Next, we discuss arachnids and compare and contrast them with insects.  The two arachnids we show the kids are the whiptail scorpion, aka vinegaroon, and Rosie, our rose-hair tarantula.  This section gives us the opportunity to clear up some misconceptions about tarantulas.  Most people think they are soooooo venomous and cannot believe we actually hold one. 

Lastly, we pull out the giant African millipede and have them guess what it is.  Every now and then we will get a correct guess, but the majority of the guesses are: caterpillar, snake, worm, snail, rollie pollie, and centipede.  We actually have a preserved centipede that we can compare the millipede to and show the differences. 

The best part about our presentation is that every kid, if they want to, can touch all of the bugs with the exception of the vinegaroon and the stag beetle, who don’t like to be touched.

Once we are all finished, we open the floor up to questions and eventually move on to the next group!  Some days we do six, 30-minute presentations and others we do three, 1-hour presentations.

lost its leg but determinant ...
Creative Commons License photo credit: challiyan

For us, this program is very rewarding.  One of the best things is when a kid says “YUCK” when they first see the bug, but after we persuade them to touch it they think it’s cute.  Also, helping kids understand that bugs aren’t so bad and many of the big and scary ones are just trying to protect themselves from predators and that they don’t really want to hurt us. 

The most priceless moment is the initial excitement they get when they first see each bug – and the escalated joy when they find out they can actually touch the bug!

For all you parents and teachers out there, I have great news!  Our Bugs on Wheels program has expanded to three different and unique programs. 

The program I just explained is now considered “Amazing Arthropods.”  One of our new programs, “Butterflies and Moths,” introduces the amazing cycle of metamorphosis and shows how butterflies and moths differ from each other and from other insects.  The other program, “Plants and Pollination,” uses a giant flower model, puppets, a bee hive, and real fruits and vegetables to demonstrate the importance of pollination to the plant kingdom and especially to the foods we eat. 

If you are interested in our programs, please feel free to leave a comment here, or contact us at bow@hmns.org.