Air, sharks, and robots: Copywriter Jason goes to summer camp

What do you get when you throw a 30-year-old copywriter into a summer camp classroom full of 10-year-olds?

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Sticking out like an aqua-colored sore thumb in Karen Culbertson’s “Leonardo’s Workshop” class at Xplorations Summer Camp. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

A lot of weird looks and kids asking, “Miss, does he actually think he’s 10 years old? Is that why he’s here?”

That, and an aqua T-shirt.

Since Xplorations Summer Camp is in its final swing at the end of this summer (only two weeks left after this one!), I decided it was time I looked into what those brilliant teachers are showing all our curious campers. VP of Youth Education Nicole Temple placed me in a class for a day as sort of an “undercover reporter,” but the kids weren’t buying it. Maybe it’s because I’m six feet tall or have a beard. And here I was starting to believe those people who said I look young for my age. Guess good skin will only take you so far.

In the “Leonardo’s Workshop” summer camp, I studied with a class of about 25 students, delving into the mechanics of pressure under the tutelage of Karen Culbertson. We learned about pneumatics, the science behind the reason tires inflate to support tons of machinery, and hydraulics, using water to drive moving parts. A bad student since way back, I arrived late to class. Camp starts at 10 a.m., and I was there around 10:45. I missed the lecture about the work of Leonardo da Vinci (the Renaissance mind responsible for strange flying machines, paintings, sculpture, and the Vitruvian Man), but I was just in time to join the class in making a few hypotheses about our first science experiment.

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Working together in groups to share ideas is a big part of learning at camp, and part of the fun. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill  

After finding the nearest empty seat and awkwardly introducing myself to my table, my group partners caught me up on what I’d missed. The day prior, they made a glider, which seems easy enough, but the challenge was they weren’t allowed to throw it. They could only drop it off a ledge, and it was supposed to soar on its own.

I expressed my doubts. “No way! Really? That sounds impossible.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” the kid across from me said with a confident shrug.

I felt intimidated. They already thought I was dumb for being a student in a class someone my age should be teaching. Could I pull this off? Would I get in trouble if I didn’t perform?

I decided to mind my P’s and Q’s and pay attention, taking careful notes. Ms. Culbertson taught us that pneumatics (careful on the spelling) is the science that deals with compressed air.

“Do you ever wonder how a tire holds up a car?”

Come to think of it, I did.

“Do you think it’s the rubber or the air that supports the weight?”

I hesitated to answer, fearful that I’d look stupid, and let the class give the correct response. “It’s the air!”

“Good. Now we’re going to see how it works.”

Ms. Culbertson’s helpers gave us straws, masking tape, and a gallon-sized plastic freezer bag. We were told to tape the bag shut with the straw inside, and she encouraged us to get creative with solving the problem of preventing any leaks. I thought it would be clever to tape the straw in one corner of the zipper closure to minimize leaks, but it didn’t work. (Here’s a tip: even when the zipper is closed and the tape surrounds the straw, the air can still leak out if you don’t seal the lip.) So I taped the whole thing shut. I saw the other kids following my example, and then I started to feel cool, like an accepted part of the group.

When our bags were sealed, Ms. Culbertson had us stack our notebooks on top of them and witness the power of an inflated chamber. We found we could lift several pounds of weight with just a flexible piece of clear plastic supported with air pressure. Pretty darn cool to see pneumatics in action!

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One of my camp buddies and I watched how marine biologists tag great white sharks with GPS trackers. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After the experiment, we headed out of the classroom on a field trip to the Shark! exhibit, where we got wet touching live bamboo and epaulette sharks. (Here’s another tip: use only two fingers and don’t grab the sharks. You can hurt them or get hurt yourself, and the marine biologists will yell at you. This didn’t happen to me; I’m just saying…) When you run your fingers from nose to tail, the sharks’ skins are smooth, but from tail to tip, it’s like sandpaper. Ms. Culbertson explained that the reason for the rough skin is to make the sharks more “aerodynamic,” a lot like the gliders her class made the day before, but in water. Their skin and torpedo shape makes sharks some of the best swimmers in the ocean.

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The docile bamboo sharks in the Shark! Touch Tank Experience exhibit feel smooth or like sandpaper, depending on which direction you pet them. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

We stayed in the exhibit and watched some footage of field biologists tagging great whites, compared the jaws of a modern shark to the giant maw of the extinct megalodon, and learned that sharks aren’t as dangerous as they seem. Even though attacks can sometimes be grisly, they don’t happen often, and it’s pretty rare to die from a shark bite. Sharks would rather eat fish than people. To them, we taste gross. Info on text panels told the tragic story of finning, which is killing millions of sharks a year, driving them toward the endangered species list.

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Information on text panels explained the plight of the great white shark, being driven to an endangered species by the global finning industry. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After a 45-minute lunch watching the Magic School Bus and chatting with some college-level facilitators closer to my own age (the one time I broke character), we returned to the classroom for the highlight of my adventure as a camper. By then I had made some friends.

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A wooden hydraulic arm gave us something to aspire to in our engineering science experiment. Syringes filled with water and food coloring drive its moving parts. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

With pneumatics behind us, Ms. Culbertson turned the class to hydraulics. Her assistants gave us each a length of surgical tubing and two syringes (without the needles, of course). We submerged all the elements in a bucket of water and assembled them, one syringe plunger-down and the other plunger-up. If you do it right, when you take it out of the water, you can press one plunger down and the hydraulic pressure forces the other plunger up. It was the basic mechanical element that allowed us to build a robotic arm.

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The basic hydraulic arm we assembled was much simpler, but no less cool. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

Ms. Culbertson showed us a fancy wooden arm build from a kit to give us inspiration. Four syringes powered it, and depending on which assembly you activated, it would grip, descend, move side to side or bend its “wrist.” There was no way any of us could have made something like that without a set of instructions, but the demonstration gave us enough ideas to build a basic hinge out of cardboard cut-outs and duct tape.

Using the same parts, each of us came up with a different model. One camper made what I named a “waving machine,” attaching a hand-shaped cutout to the end of his arm, while I and another student taped a green marker to the end of my hydraulic “arm” to make a sort of writing machine. Many other designs proved that the imagination is limitless. Some were successful, while others needed work, but with da Vinci’s lessons of constant innovation in mind, Ms. Culbertson pushed everyone to keep trying to improve their designs.

By then, it was 2 p.m. and time for me to go back to work in my boring old office cubicle. Back to adult life. Still, as I shared the adventure with several of my co-workers, it was difficult not to feel child-like excitement.

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Wild about sharks at summer camp. We all had a blast! Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

There’s only two weeks left to register for Xplorations Summer Camp at HMNS. If I learned something, made friends, and had fun, any kid will! With many other exciting themes to choose from like Crime Scene Investigators, Star Warrior’s Academy, Mummies and Mysteries, and Dino Claws and Shark Jaws, there’s tons of stuff to learn about and experiments to do.

Shoot. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll go back myself.

Geology Rocks! How I got involved with Occidental Petroleum

by Tania Campbell

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Here I am hiking the world famous Permian Reef Trail at the Guadalupe Mountains National Park to study carbonate rock outcrops.

I’ve worked as a production geologist for 11 years for Occidental Petroleum, and while that is a long run with one company in the energy industry, it has gone by fast. I remember being introduced to rocks in middle school, but by the time I was in high school, I was more interested in marine biology. I then went on to successfully complete a dual bachelor’s degree in marine science and geology, which laid the foundation for understanding carbonate rocks and basic geologic principles, starting me down my path as a production geologist.

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The Miami Circle, where American Indians carved a circular structural support out of bedrock limestone.

The first community project I got involved in that I attribute as a catalyst to my geology interest was working with an archaeological site called the Miami Circle. Approximately 2,000 years ago, American Indians used the bedrock limestone to carve out a perfect circle to support a structure. As a volunteer I only found a few animal artifacts, but I was most interested in the exposed limestone.

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A sample of core that has been cut and slabbed after it was taken from the subsurface in a well. A geologist will describe the rock types and features observed, and other interpretative data is combined to make geologic models and maps.

There are so many different kinds of specialties in geology that sometimes it can feel overwhelming trying to figure out what you want to do. I kept an open mind and set off to learn more with a master’s degree at a different school. It is highly recommended that geologists have their master’s if they want to work in the petroleum industry. I studied hydrogeology and petroleum geology for my master’s, which has helped me work better with team members from engineering backgrounds and develop further in my core profession of doing reservoir characterization. My role involves describing and modeling the layers of rock in the subsurface to predict the most favorable areas for continued secondary and tertiary hydrocarbon recovery.

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Hiking with other geologists through the canyon cuts to map the rock types and observe vertical stacking of the layers of carbonates and siliciclastics.

I am extremely thankful for my education and the career opportunities that have brought me to a place where I enjoy coming to work. Every day there is a different problem to tackle. Sometimes it requires communicating with engineers and understanding other types of non-geo data, or sometimes I need to go on a field trip to an outcrop or a core lab to visualize what the rocks could look like in the subsurface. Or Maybe that day I make maps of the reservoir. It is forever changing in the geology profession.

About the author: Tania Campbell is a production geologist with Oxy Permian Enhanced Oil Recovery, a global corporation partnered with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Girls Exploring Math and Science (GEMS) program to help educate girls through hands-on science activities and outreach.

Sahil Patel: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sahil Patel discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and moved on to become an Ecoteen as he grew older. Now, he is an HMNS Outreach Presenter and a writer for the BEYONDbones blog.

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Patel teaches a children’s class about the density of various items for the Science Start Outreach Program. Interested in the Houston Museum of Natural Science since age 6, Patel hopes to share his excitement with other kids, cultivating their education through HMNS.

HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SP: I started attending camp when I was six years old. I didn’t start going to school until Kindergarten, but I would go to work with my mom every day. Every day at lunch time, we would go to either the zoo or the museum, depending on weather, and I was hooked. The real reason I came to camp is probably so my mom could get me out of her office, but I kept coming back because I just never had a bad time. There wasn’t a single class I didn’t enjoy.

HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SP: Every summer, I had to take the Space Commander class; I must have taken it at least four times. My favorite part was the Expedition Center mission to Mars or the Moon on Friday afternoon. I loved it so much that I had a birthday party mission one year! Every time, I tried to be on a different team inside and was mostly successful. My favorite of those had to be the CIMCOM team, which got to talk to mission control. Years later, when I was a Moran Ecoteen, I got to be a part of mission control for a summer camp mission and loved every second of that, too!

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As an Ecoteen in 2010, Patel interned with Paleontology Curator David Temple.

HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SP: I enjoyed the camps that used to take field trips; one of my favorites was called Thrills and Chills, and the physics-based camp ended with a trip to Astroworld on Friday! Sadly, neither Thrills and Chills nor Astroworld still exist. I also enjoyed the Senior Coastal Ecology class that would take daytrips to Galveston to study wildlife and various aspects of the gulf coast, but this camp was discontinued in the late 2000’s. But I’d say my favorite memory was from when I took Crime Scene Investigators one year. Friday afternoon of Crime Scene Investigators involves a crime scene that the Xplorations staff and Moran Ecoteens set up, and our class went about examining evidence and following clues to try and figure out who committed the crime. Low and behold, it was our TA, who took off out the door and down the hall before he was captured and brought back to the classroom to explain himself.

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HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SP: I’ve taken quite a few of the camps that are still offered today, but one that I didn’t get to that I always wanted to take was Wizard Science Academy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released on my tenth birthday, and I was obsessed from the opening chorus. The Potter-themed summer camps weren’t created until I was too old to go to camp, and I always felt like I missed out on something amazing. That was confirmed for me when my brother took Wizard Science Academy four years ago and came home with a wand, a broomstick, and a Triwizard Tournament championship.

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As an Ecoteen, Patel was present for the blooming of Lois the Corpse Flower in 2010.

HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SP: I guess you could say that I never left. Since I started summer camp at age 6, the only summer I did not work at the museum was when I was 14, because I thought I was ineligible for the Moran Ecoteen Program at that age. HMNS has always held a special place in my heart, from the moment I saw the massive T. rex in the old Glassell Hall. The museum has always made me question what I know, motivated me to learn further, and inspired me to pursue a career in science. Over the years, I fell in love with this place as I learned more and more about it. I got to a point where a summer without HMNS was a summer wasted. I wanted to show others why I was so passionate about this place and what made HMNS so special to me. Coming to work here was a no-brainer.

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With HMNS Outreach, Patel teaches children TEKS-based science skills with the Chevron Earth Science on Wheels: Dinosaur Discovery program.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SP: Xplorations Summer Camp has had nothing but a positive impact on my life and thousands of others. The museum set me up for success by instilling in me a love of learning at a young age; Xplorations made science fun! With a summer’s worth of learning at camp, I was ready to go when school started up again in August, and I had all kinds of new, useful knowledge to impress my classmates. But most importantly, the summers I spent at Xplorations opened a door for me to a true passion: teaching. Xplorations led me to a career at HMNS. I wouldn’t be here today without it.

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Even hard at work at his desk in the outreach office, scheduling educational programs, Patel has a good time. He can’t imagine working anywhere else.

 

Ice cream science: Make a cool treat to beat the summer heat

It’s getting to that time of year when it’s so hot and yucky outside that everything cold is better.

It’s also a time for telling kids about how, when you were their age, if you wanted ice cream you had to turn a crank until your arms fell off (presumably while walking uphill to school both ways and fighting off bears…).

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Here in the Houston Museum of Natural Science education department, we have tried making ice cream in a variety of ways to see what is easiest for kids, and not all ways are equal. (Pro tip: Those special ice cream-making balls they sell for kids freeze shut, and then kids are sad. Not recommended.) Our favorite way, at the end of this post, is fairly cheap and easy and fun for kids, but before we get to the instructions, let’s talk about some science.

To make ice cream, you will of course need ice. The ice is simply to lower the temperature of the cream to the freezing point, but if you just used ice alone and let it sit, you’d end up with a solid block of cream – more like an ice cube – and it would take longer to freeze. What makes ice cream special is salt and stirring.

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Water freezes at 32° F, but sprinkling salt on the ice lowers the freezing/melting point of water. How, you say? In order for liquid water to freeze to solid ice, all of the water molecules have to slow down enough to connect to each other and form solid crystals. When this happens, the water loses kinetic energy due to the decrease in movement of those molecules. Because temperature is a measurement of kinetic energy, this results in a lower temperature.

The presence of salt interferes with this process. The water molecules can’t attract each other as easily because they are also attracted to the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Mixing the salt, ice, and water together results in a temperature below the freezing point of water, which helps the cream freeze faster. The shaking or stirring helps cool the cream evenly and efficiently. In ice cream, this lower freezing point turns the fats into solids, but the water content to be almost frozen.

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What about the milk, then? It is much easier to make ice cream with creamer, heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half than to use skim milk because of the higher fat content in cream. You can make ice cream with skim milk, but it is really, really, really hard to do by hand, AND you have already committed to making ice cream, so I feel like you have acknowledged the inherent risk of fat consumption that comes with making a frozen confectionery delight. Just use the full-fat stuff, and let’s all move on.

What does the fat do, anyway? Primarily the higher fat content allows for a richer, creamier texture and a more delicious flavor in your finished product. The reason for this is that when you are cooling and mixing the cream, you are also introducing air molecules to the liquid. The bits of fat in the cream add a little structure to the ice cream and trap these air molecules in the solution as it forms. This, plus the lower freezing temperature, enables you to be able to scoop the ice cream fairly easily because it allows for there to be a bit of unfrozen water in the ice cream, which stops the ice cream from becoming a solid block of ice.

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If you have ever had ice cream that has grown ice crystals and gotten a bit of freezer burn, those ice crystals appeared because the unfrozen water in the ice cream had a chance to migrate a little bit when the ice cream was warmed slightly on the ride home or when it was left on a counter a little too long and then frozen again. There are things called stabilizers added to your ice cream to prevent this from happening. Most ice creams today have one of five stabilizers added to them: carob bean gum* (a type of bean from Africa), carrageenan (a type of algae), guar gum (a type of legume from India), sodium alginate (made from seaweed) or carboxymethyl cellulose (sounds scary but it’s plant-based). Often, if you read the label, you will see more than one of these in your ice cream to keep it smooth and delicious.

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* Carob beans, or locust beans, are cool. They are from exotic African trees and each bean is so similar that at one point they were used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver. We still use this measurement today, but the name has changed over time to Karat.

So now that you have had a little lecture about the science of ice cream, let’s get to the delicious lab work.

 

Activity: ICE CREAM!!!!

Materials:

Individual serving containers of coffee creamer

Ice

Small waterproof container or quality sealable plastic sack big enough for about two or three cups of chipped ice

Salt, any variety

A dish towel to insulate your hands

Optional: Inexhaustible energy of small child-based labor

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Procedure:

  1. Find some liquid coffee creamers in individual pots.
  2. Put ice in your water proof container, filling it about a third of the way. Smaller chunks of ice work better because there is more surface area, but any ice will do.
  3. Layer your salt on your ice. Several solid sprinkles will do, but if you are nervous about the quantity, add some extra just in case. It won’t hurt anything.
  4. Put your sealed creamer cup(s) in your container and then put more ice in, filling it about 2/3 of the way.
  5. Layer on more salt.
  6. Finish filling the container with ice.
  7. Start shaking your container. Make sure it is well sealed and that you have a firm grip on it. No one wants to be injured in an ice cream-related accident. There is no way to spin that so it sounds cool. Also, this is an excellent job for kids to help with. Put on a nice, long song or two and let them wiggle till they drop. About ten minutes will do it, but you will know when you are getting close because a frost will form on the outside of your container. If you don’t feel frost forming after a couple of minutes, add more salt. To speed this process up, start with creamer pods that have been stored in the fridge. This way, your creamer will start at about 50° F, and you won’t have to work so hard.
  8. After about 10 minutes of shake, shake, shaking your ice cream, dig your creamer cup out of the ice and wipe it off.
  9. Ta dah! You are done. Unless you want to make this tablespoon of delicious homemade ice cream into a sundae and add chocolate and banana or some jelly for more flavor.

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Note: If you are thinking to yourself, “That seems like a lot of work for a tablespoon of ice cream,” well… it is. But it’s also science. So there.

If you get the liquid creamer that comes in a larger container at the grocery store, you can increase the volume of your creamer and make MORE ice cream. If you choose to do this, you will need to find a small waterproof (and I would suggest plastic) container to pour the creamer into and then a slightly larger waterproof container for all the ice and the salt. It’s the same procedure, just with a larger amount of the ingredients!

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