No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!

Educator How-To: Cross-curricular Education Gets Cheesy

As educators, we all want students to understand the world holistically, but we still tend to teach each subject independent from all other subjects. Food is an effective way to capture the attention of students and provide a useful tool for creating a more global and cross-curricular learning environment. This global approach to learning has been shown to produce deeper understanding of the concepts being taught.

Making cheese, which seems on its face to be a fun break or a supplemental activity, can be used to discover important concepts and ideas that span an entire range of subjects.  These subjects include, but are not limited to, chemistry, history, and geography. Hands-on learning activities help to create interest and to create better retention of learned material.cheese meme

In that spirit, try one of my favorite activities. I use this activity at the Houston Museum of Natural Science to make learning and discovery memorable. It is a culminating activity for my Iron Age lab. It’s simple, affordable, and the kids love it! Why not give it a try?

A Little Bite of Cheesy History

Milk has been a major source of nutrition from the earliest of times. Milk is full of protein, fat, calcium and other important vitamins and minerals. It just so happens that it’s also full of water and sugars, which have no real nutritional value and cause the milk to spoil quickly without refrigeration. With the invention of cheese, man found an ingenious way to prolong the shelf-life of milk.

Because bacteria love a moist and nutrient-rich environment, milk spoils easily. In antiquity, there was no refrigeration, so unless it was cold outside, fresh milk could not be saved from day to day. No one knows how, but our ancestors figured out the trick to preserving milk. They discovered that calves have a substance called rennet in their stomachs that separates the milk solids and fats from the water in the milk they suckle from their mothers. We know that animal stomachs were used to transport and hold liquid, so it’s possible the milk turning to curds and whey was a fortuitous accidental discovery.

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Goat stomach still used to make cheese in Sardinia. Photo by Ivano Atzori.

The first cheesemakers found that if they added some rennet to fresh milk, it would soon separate into two separate parts. We call these two parts the curds (where the good stuff is) and whey (mostly made up of water and some sugars). They learned that they could extract even more moisture from the curds if they cut them up and added salt to them, which also had the benefit of adding flavor to the cheese. Heating and pressing were also used to expel additional liquid from the curds. If left to age, molds and bacteria colonized the cheese, making it even more tasty! Thus was born an easy-to-make, non-perishable, transportable food for everyone!

Tasty Science: Make Your Own Ricotta!

Let’s get started! Here’s what you need:

  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons good white wine vinegar
  • Measuring cups
  • Measuring spoons
  • Pots
  • Hot plates (or a stove)
  • Mixing spoons
  • Large bowls
  • Sieves
  • Cheesecloth
  • Water
  • Paper towels

First, set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen two layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth. Next, pour the milk and cream into a pot and stir in the salt.

Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then, turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for one minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

Pour the mixture of curds and whey into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes, occasionally discarding the liquid that collects in the bowl. The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta.

Transfer the ricotta to a bowl, discarding the cheesecloth and any remaining whey. Use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep refrigerated for four to five days.

This is a basic but tasty cheese and anyone can be successful in making it. If you decide to incorporate this activity into your classroom, please share your “cheesy” pictures with HMNS on Facebook or Instagram under the hashtag #HMNS. 

Kids Explore STEAM Careers with HMNS Outreach

Inspiring a child takes effort, time, passion and heart. It’s why we do what we do.

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, discoveries are made daily. The sounds of learning fill our hallways every day, from the gasp of wonder from a kid stepping onto the Morian Overlook for the first time or the squeal of delight as a butterfly in the Cockrell Butterfly Center rests on a child’s shoulder. Those sounds are all the evidence we need to know we are upholding HMNS’ mission, its commitment to education.

For the kids that may not be able to get to the museum, there is HMNS Outreach. Our variety of programs brings HMNS straight to the community, visiting hundreds of schools and organizations each year and reaching more than 100,000 children in 2015 alone. The ultimate goal is to instill in these kids a love of learning that will carry them to new heights in their careers and throughout their lives.

Here are some of the many STEAM careers that HMNS Outreach can inspire a child to reach for.

Veterinarian

The TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels offers an extraordinary look at animals of all kinds. Students get an up close and personal encounter with wildlife ranging from snakes and frogs to birds and mammals.

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Students in Turner High School’s Vet Tech program observe the wing of a Ringneck Dove, which travels as part of the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels Vertebrates program.

Forensic Scientist

A presentation of Cleanup Crew from the Bugs On Wheels program will cover the process of decomposition and the return of vital elements to the Earth. These principles of decomposition are crucial to forensic scientists, who use arthropods and fungi to study crime scenes and gather more information.

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Entomologist Erin Mills shows off a Giant African Millipede during a presentation of the Bugs On Wheels program Cleanup Crew.

Physician

Body Works is our newest set of programs in the Science Start family, and these presentations focus on the anatomy and capabilities of the human body. From the brain to the heart to the skeleton, each of these presentations will provide students with a comprehensive overview of what we can do with what we’ve got.

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Geologist

A Chevron Earth Science On Wheels program like Know Your Rocks is immensely useful for future careers in Geology. A students’ knowledge of the rock cycle and the differences between different types of rocks and fuels can be vital in fields such as the energy industry.

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A student discusses the properties of two different specimens with his classmates during a presentation of Know Your Rocks.

Astronomer

A visit from the HMNS Discovery Dome includes more than 40 different shows about a range of topics, including a classic planetarium show, The Starry Night. One of today’s kids could discover a new planet, a galaxy, or even a black hole, and the Dome provides a great foundation for an interest in astronomy.

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Students at Reagan High School file into the Discovery Dome for a screening of Cosmic Collisions, a show narrated by Robert Redford about different outer space encounters between celestial objects.

Anthropologist

An interest in foreign cultures can take you all over the world or even back in time. Anthropologists study the history of humanity, and Docents To Go programs such as Native Americans or Ancient Egypt provide students with an introduction to different communities and societies.

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Volunteer Bob Joyce shows an arrowhead and arrow used for hunting by Native Americans.

Chemist

Try a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage program like Cool Chemistry, which discusses different chemical reactions as well as the properties of polymers and liquid nitrogen. It’s a great glimpse into what chemistry is all about!

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Educator Carolyn Leap discusses the properties of a polymer during a presentation of Cool Chemistry.

Artist

Students at Johnston Middle School have had the opportunity to sketch animals from the museum’s TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels and Bugs On Wheels programs over the years, and they’ve produced some spectacular pieces, like the crocodile skull below.

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These are just a few of the many STEAM careers that are natural extensions of the concepts discussed in HMNS Outreach. We are proud to play an important role in the lives of students all over the Houston area and beyond, and we are honored to have the opportunity to inspire the next generation.

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A student draws Peanut, a Costa Rican Curly Hair Tarantula, as Peanut cooperatively sits still.

To book HMNS Outreach, email outreach@hmns.org, call us at the number listed on our site, or fill out this form online. We look forward to working with you!

Families First: HMNS Expands Accessibility to Accommodate Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Families come in many shapes, many sizes and many kinds. We at the Houston Museum of Natural Science are always looking for ways to make our halls and collections more accessible to families of every background. That’s why we’re excited to announce our new resources for families of children with sensory sensitivities and autism spectrum disorders.

Over the past few months, we’ve been working with educators, families and professionals to develop resources that will make your family’s visit to HMNS more enjoyable. These resources can be used as pre-visit tools to plan your trip to the museum as well as during your visit to make navigating the exhibit halls easier. Take a look at what we’ve prepared for you below!

Visual Vocabulary

Use our Visual Vocabulary Cards to make visiting new spaces and transitioning between museum halls easier. You can also use these cards to create a visual schedule of your day at HMNS!

Sensory Map

Our Sensory Map provides you with information about what sensory stimuli your child can expect in each exhibit, including noise levels, visual stimulation and tactile components. Use this guide to plan your visit and decide which exhibit halls are appropriate for your family. You can also use this map to ensure your transitions and pathways between museum halls are appropriate for your child’s sensory needs.

HMNS Exploration Planner

Visit HMNS before you walk through the doors! Use our Exploration Planner to let your child know what to expect during your day at the museum, from waiting in line at the box office to exploring our many exhibit halls. Let Dipsy the Diplodocus give you helpful tips on what to look for along the way!Access2

Laminated copies of these resources will be available for you to check out at Museum Services, just inside the main exhibit hall entrance. You are welcome to use these copies, or feel free to bring your own printed versions!

Make sure to check out our Accessibility page for more helpful tips, like what days and times are the quietest or where you can easily park for your visit. We are committed to making this experience as easy as possible for you and your family.

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Accessibility is a cause near and dear to our hearts. The three of us are educators and work with kids of all kinds every day, and our goal is to make HMNS an open and welcoming environment for literally everyone.

We hope you’ll take advantage of these resources during your next visit to HMNS. Your family will be a great addition to our family.

If you have any questions, concerns or feedback regarding accessibility, please feel free to contact us.