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.”

Legend of the Peg Elves: Boy Scout Overnights offer a glimpse into museum folklore

The lights in the Morian Hall of Paleontology brighten and illuminate the Tyrannosaurus rex. The immersive soundscape in The Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife comes to life. The periodic table powers on in the Welch Hall of Chemistry. And the peg elves emerge.

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When the lights go out in the museum, the exhibits seem to come to life. Legend has it this is when the peg elves emerge. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

That’s right. As the museum gears up for another day of exploring, learning, and excitement, the peg elves at the Houston Museum of Natural Science begin to stir. They have an important job to do. They are the protectors of the pegs.

The Foucault Pendulum is an icon at HMNS, just outside the Wiess Energy Hall. If you’ve ever found yourself walking through the exhibit halls and suddenly heard an uproar of cheering, then you know it happened; the pendulum has finally knocked over one of the wooden pegs. This happens once every 12 to 13 minutes and has captivated museum audiences for decades with its ability to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation. You can hear the disappointment when visitors feel certain the pendulum is going to knock down a peg, but it swings ever so slightly by it. It’s something I remember watching intently as a child. You root for the pendulum to mark the passage of time by knocking down one of those innocent pegs. It’s the spectator sport of HMNS.

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The Foucault Pendulum outside the Wiess Energy Hall demonstrates the motion of the Earth as it rotates. It takes about 13 minutes for the pendulum to knock down a single peg, and it changes direction as our planet rotates beneath it. Photo by Jason Schaefer.

The kids who spend the night at the museum often ask us a lot of questions about the inner workings of the museum. Frequently, they want to know “How do you get those dinosaurs in here?”, “Does everything come to life at night?” and “Who sets all the pegs back up?” That’s when we tell them about the magical yet elusive HMNS peg elves.

Scotland has the Loch Ness Monster. The Himalayas have the Yeti. HMNS has peg elves. The peg elves are bearded creatures who inhabit the innermost workings of the museum. They wait in the depths of the museum for the pendulum to swing back and forth knocking each peg down. The sound of the peg clattering on the tile is music to their ears. It calls to them. It’s their mission and purpose to set those pegs back up.

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This composite sketch was created using eyewitness reports of the peg elves over the years. Reports identify the elves as typically wearing Santa hats and sunglasses, having pointy ears and beards, and reaching heights no taller than six inches.

Early in the morning before the first visitor enters the museum, the peg elves get to work. They move quickly and scamper over the walls surrounding the pegs. They place each peg with precision. The young elves observe with watchful eyes as the elders re-position the pegs. The physics of peg positioning is an art, so it’s only after a dutiful mentoring period that the younger elves are permitted to assist with the pegs. Young elves dream of the day they’re able to prop a peg up on their own. It’s a rite of passage in peg elf society.

After all the pegs are in place, the peg elves return quickly and quietly to their museum hideouts. They wait in the wings to hear that collective cheer as the pendulum swings. The peg elves know that it means there will be more work for them in the morning. After all, they are the guardians of the pendulum, the protectors of the pegs.

Peg Elf Footprints

Here you can see where we’ve successfully tracked a group of peg elves. The tiny footprints are evidence of their presence at HMNS.

Interested in sneaking a peak at the HMNS peg elves for yourself? Visit our Overnights page for information on how you can spend a night at the museum and get a glimpse of these mysterious creatures in the morning hours!

If you’re a Cub Scout or Webelos, register for our Scout Overnight on Oct. 9! You’ll get a chance to explore the museum after hours, see a Burke Baker Planetarium show and sleep in one of our renowned exhibit halls! Visit Scout Overnights or email us for more information!

Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.

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Inventory before HMNS hits…

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…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

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We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

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When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

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Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

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Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

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…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

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Reverse Tetris begins…

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…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

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HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).

Scout out the George Observatory on February 2: Cub Scouts earn Astronomy Belt Loop and Pins in one day!

What are your Scouts doing next weekend? We have an idea!

Bring your Cub Scouts out to The George Observatory on Saturday, February 2 to earn their Astronomy Belt Loop and Pins in a single day.

Hands-on activities taught by staff astronomers help Scouts enjoy completing their requirements, which include: learning how to focus and diagram a simple telescope, making and using a star map, and interviewing an astronomer.

Scouts will also get a tour of our large research telescope, in addition to learning astronomy concepts in the Discovery Dome portable planetarium.

Can’t make the February date? Don’t fret; we’ve got another day for Scouts coming up on April 20. Space is limited, so reserve your tickets in advance by clicking here.

New Scouts class Feb. 2 at The George!

What: Astronomy Belt Loop & Pin at The George Observatory
When: Saturday, February 2 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Where: The George Observatory; 21901 FM 762, Needville, TX, 77461
How Much: $15 per Scout + standard $7 park entrance fee for everyone over 12 years old.

Stay awhile and explore beautiful Brazos Bend State Park with a picnic after class. Tickets to view the night sky through our telescopes — weather permitting — go on sale at 5 p.m. For more information on The George Observatory and Brazos Bend State Park, click here.