Exploring the Natural Sciences with Blocks: It Can Be Done!

Nothing inspires both children and adults quite the way a museum does. A close second is the inspiration that both the young and old find playing and experimenting with various kinds of toys that encourage building and construction.

Exploration of the natural sciences and imaginative construction play are a natural fit. The museum’s new exhibit Block Party provides a unique opportunity for families to first explore the natural sciences in the museum’s exhibit halls and then to experience hands-on creative exploration as they get up to their elbows in interlocking bricks that can be used to build anything imaginable!

It’s well-established that block or building play are ideal avenues to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, capacity for divergent thinking, collaborative skills, and spatial thinking in children. In addition, there’s evidence connecting complex block play and construction toys with advanced math skills in later life. Building play is also beneficial for the brains of tweens and adolescents, and don’t be fooled, they still love to build and play. Recent studies link construction play with superior performance on tests of spatial skills and mathematics for older children.

Structured block play is a term used when a child attempts to recreate a construction by consulting a model or blueprint. This kind of block play calls on a specific skill set that is crucial for many complex tasks. Why not take advantage of the various opportunities available at the museum to collect inspiration for structured block play?

In order for your child to build a recreation of something they observed in the museum, they have to analyze what they saw, perceive the parts that made up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to one another. Here are some great ideas to get you started. Visit the exhibits and then visit Block Party to build and explore. Please share the great ideas you and your children come up with, and don’t forget to submit your creation to our weekly contest!

Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals

Discover the beautiful gems and minerals and then recreate the geometric structure of minerals using interlocking blocks.

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John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas

Explore models of Maya and Aztec temples and pyramids and then construct your own.

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Morian Hall of Paleontology

Discover all manner of prehistoric fossils and then reconstruct models of biped and quadruped dinosaurs to experiment with balance.

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Welch Hall of Chemistry

Visit the periodic table of elements in the chemistry hall and then model different molecules.

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Cockrell Butterfly Center

Visit the butterflies and observe the amazing symmetry of their wings, then build a symmetrical model of your own using blocks.

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Burke Baker Planetarium

See Robot Explorers in the Planetarium and then create your own model robot to explore other worlds.

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Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

Watch Journey to Space 3D on the big screen and then design a space ship to send to Mars.

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Wiess Energy Hall

Journey through the energy hall and then construct an innovative model drilling platform or solar energy farm.

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Strake Hall of Malacology and Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology

Discover the amazing world of coastal ecology and mollusks. Then, design and build a model of an artificial reef to be used in conservation efforts.

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Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife

Observe the different dioramas and then construct your own museum display using building blocks.

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Have a great time building your relationship with your child by building with blocks! Our brand-new Block Party interactive play area is designed to inspire the imaginations of all ages. Construction has begun and the excitement is building!

Being Natural: Michelle Connor

She’s been a Girl Scout, a troop leader, a cookie mom, and now she’s ready to go even further. Michelle Connor is excited and ready to be the next Scout Programs Manager at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

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Connor brings to the program an insider’s perspective on scouting with extensive experience working with HMNS Education Programs. Moving forward, Connor would like to inject fun, educational programming into classes that meet badge requirements for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

She has plenty of experience making classes exciting. Connor was a fifth-grade teacher before retiring, teaching a wide variety of subjects but specializing in science.

“I was always trying to find a way to bring it to life for the kids,” Connor said. “[The school] didn’t have the equipment they needed, so I bought the equipment I needed for my classroom. I was always trying to find a way to teach the lesson with a hands-on activity.”

At her own expense, Connor would purchase owl pellets for students to explore following testing. She introduced herself to kids while holding a piece of coprolite. As Connor put it, “they learned I was the fun, crazy science teacher.”

Connor got her start at HMNS as a volunteer after a butterfly gardening class with then-Greenhouse Manager Ory Roberts back in 2007. Connor always loved plants; her degree is in Floriculture, so this was as good a place to start as any. Throughout the class, Roberts talked about how helpful her volunteers were, and at the end, Connor asked how she could begin to volunteer.

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Connor loves many aspects of HMNS, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center and the live inhabitants of the Brown Hall of Entomology, like the giant prickly stick she is holding here.

“[Roberts] jokingly told me, ‘Show up on Monday!’” Connor said. “So I did!”

After successful stints volunteering in the greenhouse and in special exhibits such as Frogs! A Chorus of Colors, Connor was in love. She was even voted President of the HMNS Volunteer Guild in 2013.

Connor would spend nine months of the year volunteering and three months teaching for Xplorations summer camps. Hundreds of kids would enter Hogwarts each summer with Connor leading the way in Wizard Science Academy, a Harry Potter-inspired science camp. She learned firsthand the high standard HMNS holds for its educational programming, and she earned a reputation among staff as the kind of person who sees a problem and fixes it.

Connor stood out as an applicant for the Scout Programs Director position in part due to her extensive background working with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Connor was a Girl Scout herself. She still has her old sash!

“I loved being a Girl Scout!” Connor said. “Girl Scouts was always encouraging, always made you want to learn more, to have you step out of the box, build friendships. Those joys are what encouraged [my husband and I] to put our own kids in Scouts.”

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Connor completed the Wood Badge program through the Boy Scouts of America while her son was a Boy Scout. “Go Buffaloes!” she proudly proclaimed.

Connor and her husband Jim have a son and a daughter, both of whom were Scouts themselves. Michelle held a wide variety of roles in her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, from cookie mom and assistant leader to gold award counselor and troop leader. While Jim was the den leader for their son’s troop, Michelle was heavily involved in summer day camps for Cub Scouts and was assistant scoutmaster when their son graduated to Boy Scouts. She went through the full Wood Badge training herself.

“My daughter earned a gold award, and my son is [now] an Eagle Scout. Obviously, I believe in scouting,” Connor said. “I remember my son doing a merit badge [at HMNS] and loving it. I want to get that ‘awe-ness’ back into this program that I saw and that my son experienced.”

Connor is slowly but surely reshaping Scouts@HMNS; she taught scout classes this summer and felt that changes needed to be made. She is beginning by rewriting all merit badge classes to introduce more interactive activities to make classes more engaging and fun. These classes will go beyond checking a box to indicate a requirement has been met. Connor wants to get past the “what” of each requirement and delve into the “why” and “how.” Even adding a component as simple as group discussion helps a lot.

“Each merit badge is educational,” Connor said. “You enhance it; if need be you add to it, to explain what the requirement is… I want there to be a spark in even the most serious of merit badges. You’ve got to make something so that the kids are enjoying it. If they enjoy something, they’re learning it.”

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Connor is rewriting badge classes to better utilize the resources that HMNS presents, making them more enjoyable for Scouts and parents alike.

In addition, the program is growing to cover more scouts than ever before. This spring, Scouts@HMNS is debuting 12 new badge classes specifically for Brownies, Juniors and Cadettes, 15 new Adventure classes for Cub Scouts, and two new Boy Scouts Merit Badge classes. All in all, there are 62 different classes for families to choose from, and Connor is working on making all of them exciting and enjoyable for all.

In the end, Connor is motivated more than anything by the character she saw built in her kids through scouting. She is looking forward to helping more youth in the Houston area grow with scouting and HMNS.

“As a teacher and a parent, scouting teaches kids values and how to be a good citizen. Saying ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ goes a long way,” Connor said. “Scouting gives values at a young age that they follow throughout their lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl, it gives you those values. You learn friendship, you learn how to take care of yourself, you learn how to become independent, and we need more of that in kids today.”

Amazing Cakes: Top picks of Party Smarty 2015

by Karen Whitley

Every year we see hundreds of birthday cakes, and we are blown away (candle pun intended) by some of the creations parents bring in! From the cakes that defy gravity to the ones we have to use careful geometry to cut, we are always excited to see what a party brings in. Here’s a look at some of our favorite cakes so far.

Here’s a gorgeous cake to celebrate our butterfly theme. The bees and ladybugs add the perfect touch!

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If you have a boy (or girl) more interested in bugs than botany, check out this cake crawling with garden pals.

Insect Cake

For all of you mad scientists out there, here’s a chemistry cake for you.

Chemistry cake

In celebration of our brand new Wildlife theme. You can’t see it, but there are alligators lurking along the edges of this Texas cake!

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This stellar Jupiter cake is out of this world!

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While it’s not one of our themes, Elsa and Anna from Frozen made numerous appearances this year.

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A fabulous Ancient Egypt cake, complete with flaming torches! Walking like a hieroglyph yet?

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And to round off our Amazing Cakes, here’s a look at some of our favorite dinosaur delicacies!

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And finally our personal favorite here at Party Smarty.

Logo Cake

Is it just me, or is there a resemblance?

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If you need help finding cakes as awesome as these for your HMNS birthday party, give us a call! We keep a list of the best places to find cool creations.

Editor’s Note: Karen is the Birthday Party Manager for HMNS Marketing.

Seeing Stripes: The Zebra Longwing Butterfly

The zebra longwing (Heliconius charithonia) is a common resident of the Cockrell Butterfly Center (CBC). This butterfly is easily recognizable with boldly striped yellow and black wings. When visiting the CBC, you’ll often spot them sipping nectar from the flowers and nectar feeders or sunning themselves with their wings spread open. These butterflies have some unique features and behaviors that set them apart form the rest!

Aposematic Coloration

Bright, contrasting warning colors are known as aposematic coloration. They indicate to potential predators of the “unprofitability” of a prey item. The bold yellow and black stripes on the zebra longwing serve as a warning signal to potential predators of the butterfly’s unpalatable and poisonous nature. Zebra longwing caterpillars feed on passion vine (passiflora) leaves and acquire some of their toxins, making them distasteful to predators. 

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Bright, contrasting colors warn predators to stay away.

Pollen feeders

Most butterflies can only sip fluids with their proboscis, most commonly flower nectar. Zebra longwings, on the other hand, also feed on pollen. They use their saliva to dissolve the pollen and take in its nutrients. Pollen, unlike nectar, contains proteins and is very nutritious. Pollen feeding is correlated with overall higher fitness. This diet allows zebra longwings to live longer (up to six months) and increases females’ egg production. 

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You can see pollen on this zebra longwing’s proboscis. Feeding on pollen increases longevity.

Pupal Mating

Male zebra longwings exhibit pupal mating, zebra_longwing_and_chrysaliin which they will mate with a female before and immediately after she emerges from her chrysalis. Males will seek out a female pupae and will perch on it and guard it from competing males. Many males may fight for the opportunity to mate with the yet-to-emerge female. The successful male will insert his abdomen into the softening pupae and copulate with the female. Mating will continue as she emerges and dries her wings. The males will pass a nutrient-rich spermatophore to the female which reduces her attractiveness to future mates. This male (at right) begins mating with the female before she has even emerged from her chrysalis.

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This mating pair shows the freshly emerged female still clinging to her chrysalis.

Communal Roosting

Adult zebra longwings roost communally in groups of up to 60 individuals at night. They tend to return to the same roost on a nightly basis. In the late afternoon, zebras can be observed fluttering and basking near their roost site as they slowly gather together for the night. Roosting together provides protection from predators and retains warmth. 

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These zebra longwings are preparing for the night by roosting together for safety.

So now you know! These beautiful, brightly colored butterflies are bad-tasting, and long-lived. They have unique mating habits and the snuggle together at night. Something to remember next time you visit the zebras at the CBC!