Skulls, Horseshoes, Parrots and Robots: Fall Teacher Tuesdays offer awesome classroom ideas

It’s officially fall, and I’d like to say the weather is cooling down and the leaves are turning bright and beautiful colors, but we live in Houston. So… no.

Instead, I can tell you that we’ve been hard at work this summer developing fun, fast and hands-on activities for this year’s ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesdays. For adults only, Teacher Tuesdays offer fun and interactive professional development opportunities for ideas to kick your lessons up a notch. We’re pretty excited about the line-up this fall, and we’re dying to give you a sneak peak of what to expect.


Our first ExxonMobil Teacher Tuesday has us focusing on one of our favorite topics: Day of the Dead! With all-new crafts, this workshop is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Check out the photo above for a hint at the items we’ll be making in class. For those of you who have been to a Day of the Dead workshop before, you’ll be pleased to know that the sparkle box is back!


In October, you can join us for an in depth look at the rock cycle with James Washington, Lead Concierge here at HMNS. James, who leads tours for the museum, has his very own collection of specimens he’s willing to share with the world. Anyone who has participated in what I refer to as “The James Washington Experience” leaves with a much better understanding of how all sciences are connected.


You also have the opportunity to visit the new Hamman Hall of Coastal Ecology on Oct. 27 to discover the critters in and around the ocean. You’ll even get the chance to get up close and personal with a horseshoe crab. (Fun fact: horseshoe crabs keep you healthy in ways you probably don’t even know about but will learn in this mind-blowing workshop.)


For November, pop down to the rainforest as you learn about the Amazon in the Out of the Amazon workshop. As part of the workshop, you will be treated to a rainforest wildlife presentation as well as a tour of the new exhibit Out of the Amazon. Dover and Frankie, our resident green-cheeked conures, might even make an appearance and will within minutes have entire room full of adults trained to do tricks.teacher7Join us in December for a viewing of Robots 3D in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. HMNS’s own Kathleen Havens wrote the curriculum for this National Geographic feature, so you know it’ll be hands-on, fun and engaging for students while covering STEM objectives and careers. If you’d like to discover some reasonable engineering challenges you can do at school for your elementary and middle school students that don’t require a $3000 grant, this workshop is for you!


And that just takes us through December! The spring semester is just as exciting, covering everything from blood splatter to brain-based learning. Check out our complete schedule, and we’ll see you at HMNS!

Educator How-To: Make your own Dia de los Muertos altar out of Altoids tins

If you have been following along, you might have noted that Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — is a favorite holiday for the Youth Education staffers.

The Day of the Dead is celebrated in Mexico on Nov. 2. It is a time when Mexican families spend time at the cemetery, visiting the graves of their relatives, cleaning and perhaps painting the headstones, arranging flowers, especially flowers of the dead (marigolds) and lighting candles.

It is also the time when Mexican families construct special home altars dedicated to the spirits of their deceased loved ones. The altars range from simple to the very elaborate and are usually filled with objects that provided pleasure to the departed person in life, including favorite food and drink. Altars dedicated to the spirits of deceased children often include toys, candy and other sweets.


The altars usually contain objects with significant meaning. These objects can be either the actual thing or a representation.These objects include, but aren’t limited to:

Pictures of the deceased and/or representations of saints: These are used as a focus for the shrine and may help determine the direction of the rest of the altar.  For example, Frida Kahlo is a popular topic for altars.  An altar to her may be very different than one for a personal relative.

Marigolds: The flower cempazúchil, also known as the marigold, is the flower of the dead. Its yellow orange color can be seen from far away; therefore the flowers are the first beacon the dead will see.  A trail of flowers leads the dead home where the altar is awaiting their arrival.

Copal: Copal is aromatic tree resin burned in Mesoamerica as incense.  Several different tree resins bear the name copal. Copal is burned on the altar so that the dead might recognize the aroma of their home and feel welcome.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: These are offered to the spirit of the dead to help sustain them in the afterlife.

Candles: The candles on an altar represent fire, one of the four essential altar elements.  Candles are included in the altar to purify and to provide light to the dead to help them find their way home. One candle is included on the altar for each deceased that is being remembered.

Skulls and skeletons: Sugar skulls are a traditional folk art from southern Mexico used to celebrate Day of the Dead. Mounds of colorful sugar skulls are sold by Indian vendors in open air village markets during the week preceding the holiday. Sugar skulls are colorfully decorated with icing, pieces of bright foil, colored sugars and usually bear the name of the deceased loved one being honored. The calaca is a model of a skeleton that can be found doing any number of things that the dead may have enjoyed in life, from riding a bike to dancing. The calaca reminds us that death is not something to fear. The calaca also shows us that no soul likes to be remembered sadly. Papier-mâché skeletons and skulls are used to add flair, beauty and a festive air to the Day of the Dead.  Mexican folk artists spend all year crafting this very special type of art.

Since it is unlikely that you will be able to take your students to the graveyard of a famous scientist or celebrity to construct an altar in their honor, we are proposing that you bring the altars to your classroom! This small and potentially free classroom activity involves research, informative writing, creative thinking and a little bit of arts and crafts for good measure. Enjoy!

Altoids tin or other similar tin
Quick dry craft glue
A nail or other scratching device
Tissue paper
Pens, pencils, markers etc.
Any other found objects you choose – it can be anything you want to give students access to or anything they can bring in.



1. The project can contain either purely artistic merit or it can have a writing component to add higher level thinking and make it multidisciplinary and applicable to any class. This project is written to include the composition portion, but feel free to eliminate it if you choose.

2. Explain the purpose of an altar for Dia de los Muertos as well as the traditional elements of an altar to your class.

3. To begin, have students research an historical figure or relative of their choice. The figure must be deceased. You may want to set some limits of the choices (must have died at least 50 years ago, must be from a specific country, must be a writer/scientist, can’t be an actor or musician, etc.).

4. Once the students have selected a figure and you have approved of the choice, you will want to provide a rubric, format or objective for the students. Depending on the grade level, you may want to structure the composition around a particular TEKS writing objective or prompt. For example:

  • > 3rd graders need to communicate with a variety of audiences and learn the basics of research.
  • > 4th and 5th graders need to persuade and inform in their writing.
  • > 6th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 7th graders need to write about their own experiences and write persuasively.
  • > 8th graders need to write a personal essay and write persuasively.

So in any of these examples, you could have students make a case for a particular historical figure or family member. The choice of writing composition will be left to you.

5. Now you will need to provide students with their tin. You can either order them from a number of various sources for about $0.30 each or you can have students collect or provide Altoids tins. These will be free to you! The advantage to the tins as opposed to a larger classroom altar is the storage requirements and the cost.

6. Review the Day of the Dead altar and its components again. Explain to your students that they will be making a complete altar for their figure. They must include all of the elements of the traditional altar. Due to the space restrictions, however, they must get creative!  For older students, you will need to talk about symbolism and encourage them to incorporate this into their altars while still fitting the figure in question. For example, a student picks Thomas Edison. Rather than a candle, the student might opt for a magazine cutout of a light bulb to represent both light and illumination AND one of Edison’s inventions; or students could add overly large ears to their skulls to show that Edison was largely deaf.

7. Let students have access to anything and everything consumable that might work into their altar. You may want them to collect items to bring in and share. Even very unconventional items will be great as part of the challenge is creativity.  It will be up to you to decide whether to let students work on their tins in class or at home, but it may be a good idea to let them at least discuss ideas in small groups so they can help each other develop ideas. This will be particularly effective after researching the figure because they will have more information to provide to their classmates about their figure (like the invention of the light bulb and deafness for Thomas Edison).

8. As the students are working on their altars, have them make a note of how they incorporated each of the altar elements in a meaningful way. This should be turned in as part of the altar. See the example included below.

9. Once the students’ tins are complete, have them create a little class art gallery or museum so that all of students can see the creativity of the other students. You may want to create a survey for the students to fill out regarding the altars to make sure that they are taking their time and absorbing the information provided.  Some example questions might include:

  • > Which altar is your favorite? Why?
  • > List three interesting or surprising facts you learned. Each fact must come from a different altar.
  • > Name one symbol from one altar that you might have represented differently. How would you have done it?


10. Additionally, you might want to display altars in the library or display cases, have students present their findings to the class using PowerPoint, have students translate their symbol information into Spanish, etc.

As an example, I have included pictures of my tin altar and an explanation of my components:

Example Explanation of Altar Symbols

Explanation of Altar Symbols

Pictures: I chose this particular portrait of Charles Darwin because it was one of the last made during his lifetime. Additionally, it is a painting rather than photograph. Most of the images available of Darwin as an adult are photographs and I like to think, with all of the scientific and technological change that occurred during his time, that the last image of his was created using very traditional methods.

Marigolds/Candles: The origin of the word “marigold” is probably a reference for the Virgin Mary or possible refers to its original name in old Saxon which meant “it turns with the Sun.” So the image of marigolds does triple duty: it refers to a saint, it represents grave flowers, and it represents light.

Copal: I left traditional copal as part of my altar because Darwin originally joined the HMS Beagle crew as a geologist. Copal, like amber, are both considered fossils and are important clues in determining the flora and fauna of a particular area of time in the fossil record.

Pan de Muerto and other foods: I have included a picture of hardtack rather than pan de muerto. Both are bread-based but the hardtack was a common food substance on ships as it kept for a long time in the holds.

Skulls and skeletons: The skeleton I included is of a frog because one of the many contributions Darwin made to science was in identifying a species of frog, named “Darwin’s frog”, as part of his travels on the HMS Beagle.

Sugar Skull How-To Part II: Royal icing’s not just for royals

When last we left you in the sweet lobotomies how-to, we had made the actual sugar skulls, let them dry and scooped the backs out.  In this post, you will learn how to make the icing used to decorate the skulls and cement them together.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!Materials:

  • 2 pounds powdered sugar
  • ½ cup meringue powder
  • 2/3 cup water
  • Several bottles or jars of gel food coloring in a variety of colors (available in the baking aisle of your local craft store)
  • Heavy-duty Kitchen Aid-style mixer
  • Sturdy tall cup
  • Good quality plastic sacks
  • Clear packing tape
  • Scissors
  • Small rubber bands



1.  The most important part of this whole how-to is obtaining the heavy-duty mixer. If you don’t own one yourself, you’ll need to find one or borrow one. I’m a pretty proficient baker, but one year (with great hubris) I tried to skip this step and use my hand mixer.  After we put the fire out, we swept up the pieces of my sad little hand mixer and said a few kind words before dumping it in the trash. In short? Do not skip this step.
2.  The second thing you need to know is that royal icing for sugar skulls is not an exact science, and you will likely have to feel your way through the first batch. You definitely want your icing to be pasty rather than runny, so adjust as needed.
3.  Once you have your heavy-duty mixer, dump a 2-pound bag of powdered sugar into the bowl. To this, add ½ cup meringue powder and about 2/3 cup water.
4.  Start the mixer on slow, but after you know the powdered sugar isn’t going to go everywhere, bump it up to a medium speed. Keep an eye on it.
5.  Stop the mixer after a minute or two and scrape the bowl. You may need to add a little bit more water or powder to get the right consistency.
6.  Let the mixer run again on medium speed.  I don’t have an exact time, but here’s what I usually do: Start the mixer, get distracted with something, forget that you are making icing, come back in 3 to 15 minutes, add a tiny bit more water, mix again, and then think, “That’s probably alright.”
7.  Now we are going to get some piping bags ready by reinforcing them.  The point of steps 7 through 11 is to reinforce the edge of the sack so that it doesn’t split when you squeeze it. To reinforce your sack, you will need to get out your good quality plastic sacks, scissors and clear packing tape. My version of this can be a little tricky, so I have included a terrible drawing and a picture of the finished product. Enjoy.
8.  Cut off a piece of tape about 7 inches long. The piece of tape in the photo has the edge outlined in black so that you can see and hopefully follow the line.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scrach: Here's how to decorate 'em!

9.  Lay the tape on the edge of the counter, sticky side up.
10.  Place the bag on the table with one tip touching the edge of the counter.
11.  Wrap the extra pieces of tape up on the bag so that the lower two edges end up meeting on top of the bag, perpendicular to the edge of the counter.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!12.  Once you have your sack reinforced, tuck your taped corner into a sturdy glass and fold the edges down — much like you might put a trash bag in a trash can. Pull the edge of the sack down tight so that the least amount of sack is in the glass.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!13.  Take a big fat dollop of your icing and stick it in the sack.
14.  Pull the sack out and twist the open end shut. Rubber band it tightly! You don’t want any escapees.
15.  With your fingers, massage some of the icing into the reinforced tip of the bag.
16.  Snip off about 1/8 of an inch from the corner of the bag. If you aren’t sure what an 1/8 of an inch looks like, snip off the least amount you can possibly cut. You can always cut more off, but you can’t put any back on, as they say somewhere about something.
17.  Take the sack in your dominant hand (unless you want to make things harder for yourself), and cup it gently in your palm with the twisted end in between your thumb and pointer finger.
18.  Squeeze your thumb against your pointer finger. If your sack is super full, you won’t be able to touch the two together. The point is to keep the icing from coming out of the twisted end.
19.  Practice squeezing the frosting out of the hole onto a piece of paper towel by rolling your fingers — pointer to pinky — down the bag. With a little practice, you will get a feel for it and probably develop a technique that feels okay to you.
20.  Adjust the size of the hole as needed. (Note: More pressure does not equal more awesome. If you use too much pressure, your sack of icing will explode). If the frosting isn’t coming out, there may be a lump caught in the hole or your icing is too thick. If it’s the former, pinch the tip between your fingers to squish lumps. If it’s the latter, put the frosting back in the mixing bowl and add a bit more water.
21.  Now for the fun part! Take one of your scooped skull fronts in your hand, face down, and squeeze out a line of icing along the scooped rim.
22.  Take a scooped skull back and press it to the frosted edge.
23.  Press the two skull parts together with a tiny, tiny bit of twisting back and forth. If some icing squishes out of the joint, wipe it off with your finger.
24.  The skulls are technically ready to decorate now, but if you need a little more practice with the piping bag, let them dry a bit first. Wet, the skull bits might shift if you aren’t careful. Dry, nothing will get those two to move!
25.  To get colored frosting, you will want to scoop all of the icing out of the mixing bowl and then put back just what you want to tint with the first color of gel food coloring.
26.  Select a color for the icing from your gel food coloring options. I suggest starting with the lightest color first so you don’t need to wash out the bowl between batches. Some might call this lazy; I prefer “efficient.” We made our icing in this order: First batch, yellow, orange, red and second batch, green, blue, purple, black.
27.  Put about a quarter of the food coloring into the mixing bowl and mix well.  If it is too bright, add more white. If it’s too soft, add more coloring.
28.  When you have the right color, reinforce another sack and put the colored icing in it.  Don’t cut the tip yet.
29.  Repeat steps 25 to 28 until you either run out of frosting and have to make another batch or have all the colors you want.
30.  Black icing is not necessary to make a sugar skull, but many people prefer it for eye sockets, noses and teeth. To make black icing for the skull, get an unreasonable amount of black food coloring – let’s say three bottles or jars. Add the coloring a half a jar at a time until you get the right color. It often seems purple, grey or dark blue for a long, long time but eventually turns black. If you have the time and are patient enough to wait, letting the black icing sit in the piping bags for a few days seems to help the color darken.
31.  When you’re ready, snip the bag corners and decorate your skulls. Pay attention to where your skull touches the table when resting and try not to decorate it there.

We taught you how to make sugar skulls from scratch; here's how to decorate 'em!

32.  If you want to save your bags of icing for more skulls or a later use (like gingerbread houses), squish the icing out of the tips so that the tips are flat for a centimeter or so, and then put painters’ tape across the holes. If you are going to use the icing within a week or 10 days, you can leave it out. If you are waiting longer than that, you might want to put it in the fridge. When you are ready to use the icing again, bring it to room temperature and remove the painters’ tape.

Fun Facts:

Fun Fact No. 1: Gel food coloring will stain everything you own. Do not decide to make colored icing the day before you are in a wedding, or your hands will be purple.

Fun Fact No. 2: As far as we can tell, sugar skulls are unattractive snacks to pests because of the meringue powder. So, if you are careful with them, you should be able to use them from year to year!

Sweet lobotomies: A sugar skull how-to for fellow craft addicts

Fall is a favorite time of year for many people in the Education Department. The summer rush is over, the weather has gone from sweltering to just hot and Dia De Los Muertos is approaching. When it comes to Day of the Dead crafts, some might say we have an addiction. But we don’t! We can stop crafting whenever we want to … we just don’t want to.

To share in the spirit of this holiday for craft addicts, we’re going to show you how to make sugar skulls. They are fun and easy, but you should be prepared to get a little sticky, and the process does take a bit of time.

Completed sugar skull!Ingredients:
5 lbs of sugar
¼ cup of meringue powder
3+ tablespoons of water

A big bowl
A sugar skull mold (see notes below)
Scraps of cardboard sized to your mold
Your hands (because a spoon just doesn’t cut it!)

1.    Dump your 5 lbs. bag of sugar into your bowl.
2.    Add ¼ cup of meringue powder. We used a rounded ¼ cup, so precision isn’t super important here. Meringue powder is widely available at any store selling cake decorating supplies.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to3.    Mix the sugar and powder with your hands.
4.    Add 3 tablespoons of water half a tablespoon at a time and mix with your hands. You are aiming for the sugar to stick to itself. To test this, sprinkle a handful into your open palm. Close that palm into a fist and then open your hand. If the sugar stays in the shape of your closed fist — however briefly — you’ve got a winner.  If it is too powdery or won’t stick, add more water. If it is too mushy, add a bit more sugar.
5.    Once you’ve got it to the right consistency, get your mold. We’ve cut ours apart for ease of use, but you can leave them as a whole sheet too.
6.    Put the mold in one of your hands face down.
7.    Pack the sugar mixture into the mold like you would brown sugar for baking.  It is okay if it is overly full as long as it is tightly packed.
8.    Using your cardboard scrap, scrape the excess sugar off and back into the bowl.  Your skull’s back, if viewed from the side, should be totally flat.
9.    Place the cardboard scrap on the back of your skull so it covers all the sugar.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to10.    Press the mold and cardboard together.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to11.    Flip!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to12.    Place both pieces on the counter together.
13.    Lift the mold off.  Ta-da!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to14.    Repeat this process, making sure to make enough backs and fronts. Making sugar skulls is a very forgiving process. If you aren’t 100 percent satisfied with your work, dump it back into the bowl and start over. If your skull is dried and has a defect, cover the defect with icing.  No worries!
15.    After 4 to 8 hours, depending on the humidity, your skulls should be stiff to the touch and you can gently pop them off the cardboard.
16.    Take a skull and place it in your hand face down.
17.    With a metal spoon, lobotomize your sugar skull. You will scoop out all the inside goodness and put it back in your bowl.  If your skull isn’t dry enough, it will crumble in your hand. This isn’t a problem – just wet your hand, mix up the bits and do it again. If your skull is too hard, you won’t get any scoopings. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, either, but no scoopings means heavier skulls and it is a bit wasteful.

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to18.    Re-wet the scoopings, if necessary, and use them to make a few more skulls!

Sweet lobotomy! A sugar skull how-to19.    Stay tuned for a second post on how to make royal icing to cement and decorate your skulls.

If you are nervous about the process, don’t have the time or just don’t want your floors to be sticky, join us on Monday Oct. 22, for an evening workshop on Day of the Dead and Sugar Skulls.

Editors’ Notes:
If you live in Houston, then you’re in for a treat. Casa Ramirez in the Heights is your one-stop-shop for Day of the Dead items, including a variety of sugar skull molds. Senor Ramirez is old school, however, so there is no website and definitely no online ordering option. This is offset by the instant gratification of walking away with your molds and not having to pay shipping.

If you are not from Houston, you might want to check out, a pretty terrific online store that sells just about anything you can imagine when it comes to Dia de Los Muertos. Happy lobotomizing!