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.

Late Night with Catalysts: New program offers after-hours fun for the young at heart

When I tell people I’m the Overnight Coordinator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I usually get one of two reactions. It’s either a sarcastic “Oh, does everything come to life at night?” or an astounded “People can spend the night there?!” While I’m in the Youth Education Programs department and typically work with the kiddos, we decided to partner with the Catalysts young professionals group at HMNS to create a late-night event for the young at heart. On July 30 we had our first-ever adult late night at HMNS exclusively for the Catalysts group.


The museum up late. From left to right, Emily Lutz, Elizabeth Marlowe, Jayme Schlimper (in the bear mask), Matti Hammett, Kelli Lozada, Nicole Temple, Julia Russell, Kelsey Friedemann, Madison Weinhoffer, Katie Conlan, and Sahil Patel.

Since it’s summertime, we decided to take everyone on a trip down memory lane to good ol’ summer camp. Of course, we had to make it a trip with a bit of that HMNS pizzazz. Late-nighters could “roast” s’mores in our toaster ovens as an indoor (and flameless) spin on everyone’s favorite campfire cuisine. We had a make-your-own trail mix bar complete with barbecue flavored mealworms as an optional but delicious addition. We also had some Cool Chemistry demonstrations by seasoned Outreach presenter Sahil Patel and flashlight-led tours of the Morian Hall of Paleontology with Connor Eichenwald from the museum’s W.T. & Louise J. Moran Ecoteen Program. Finally, if campers wanted to capture the moment, we had Smilebooth there with a bevy of youth ed-crafted, camp-themed props! See some of our favorite snapshots below.

If a summer camp-themed late-night sounds like your idea of a night well spent, then Catalysts is the group for you! Our young professionals group gives you access to a variety of events throughout the year including tickets to an exclusive Catalysts events each quarter and tickets to our Mixers and Elixirs events during the summer. That’s on top of the usual membership benefits like free access to our renowned permanent exhibition halls and advance notice of upcoming events and special exhibitions. Visit our Catalysts Web page to join today!


From left to right, Christine Dubbert, Sahil Patel, Madison Weinhoffer, and Daniel Echeverri.


From left to right, Clark Kellogg, Nicole Temple, and Allison Kellogg.


…and Sahil Patel, again. :)


Top, left to right, Julia Russell, Zack Kammer, Hunter Robinson (bear mask), and Dalia Rihani. Bottom, from left, Britt Baumgardner and Freddy Dabaghi.


Dain Geist and Rachel Wilkinson.


Morgan and Elizabeth Hann.

These are a few of my favorite things

Well, it’s been a year since the grand reopening of the Cockrell Butterfly Center and what a year it’s been.  We had an awesome opening last May with a whole weekend full of fun and excitment.  

Soon after the opening we had “Adopt A Butterfly” and a swarm of Ecoteens.  (Ecoteens are wonderful young volunteers that can always be found somewhere in the museum in the summer time.)  We also shared our newly renovated exhibit with all of our docents with an exciting week of docent training.  


Me lounging on a GIANT spicebush
swallowtail caterpillar

With all the hard work that went into redoing the exhibit, it was great to hear all the compliments from our docents and patrons.  I have talked to many guests that come back regularly to see their favorite parts of the exhibit and it’s always interesting to hear what they like, so I thought that I would share my favorite parts with you.

The huge spicebush swallowtail caterpillar that greets everyone at the very beginning of the exhibit is probably my favorite sculpture.  I got to see this go from a hunk of foam to a plain colored caterpillar to the wonderful masterpiece it is today.  It is so fun to see kids and adults posing with the caterpillar – what a great way to start off the exhibit.

I promise I am not going to go through the whole exhibit but my second favorite part is the hallway leading up to the Brown Hall of Entomology.  The colors are so bold and I still find myself in awe when I walk up and down the stairs.  


There is also a section of the hall that displays how wonderful ants are at building their homes.  There are three casts of actual ant nests displayed with a video of how they were made.  (CBS News recently did a great story on the man who developed this casting process; you can see it here by clicking on “The Secret World of Ants.”) It’s pretty cool to see the structure of the fire ant, Solenopsis invicta, nest and how many tunnels they have. 

A lifesize cast of an anthill and all the tunnels

Beetles, aka Coleoptera, are a main part of our exhibit because one out of four living animals on earth is a beetle!  There is a beautiful preserved beetle display showing specimens from some of the major beetle families.  I think I’m partial to this section because Erin and I spent hours sorting through our beetle collection. 

A few days before the grand reopening we both spent A LOT of time planning and actually putting together this wonderful beetle display.  We have a quiz game hosted by a very southern dung beetle that is probably the most popular interactive section of the Entomology Hall.  I love this game because it gives visitors a chance to get a bit competitive with their friends and learn cool stuff about Arthropods at the same time. 

I would really love to share with you everything that is in the Entomology Hall, but I will give you the chance to come see it youself. 

We did not change much inside of the actual rainforest, but we did get an observation bee hive.  I have to say that this is super cool and I sometimes find myself spending a lot of time watching it.  This is probably one of Nancy’s favorite parts of the exhibit.  She has even taking up backyard beekeeping herself. 

Another thing about the rainforest that is brand new are the butterfly charts.  You can borrow one of these when you go into the exhibit to help you identify the butterflies. 

The last part of the exhibit is downstairs where the old insect zoo used to be.  My absolute favorite part about this area is the “beneficial insects” game.  It’s kinda goofy, but lots of fun and I’ve seen so many kids begging their parents to stay so they can play longer. 


Another part of this area that I really enjoy is the “eating insects as food” section.  To see the look on peoples faces when they realize that the vending machine in front of them doesn’t have the normal stuff but instead has bugs to eat is priceless! 

I hope you enjoyed my favorite things and remember that I just touched the surface of what we have to offer.  I hope that if you haven’t had the chance to come check out our one year old renovated exhibit you will come soon.  I would also like to hear back from you guys as to what some of your favorite things are!