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.


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.


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!

What’s the perfect B-Day? Puppies, reading and the museum!

For her eighth birthday, Maddie Sanders told her mom she wanted nothing more than to read to dogs at the museum. It seems like an unlikely service, but the Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land is the perfect fit for such a childhood wish.

Through the P.A.W.S. (Pets Are Wonderful Support) Reading Program, Maddie made two new canine friends, a German Shepherd named Jasmine, and Ranger, a Golden Retriever. From 10 a.m. to noon, she sat with the dogs and read to them along with her five-year-old sister Nola and her mother and father, Hope and Brian.


Maddie and Nola Sanders read to Ranger with the help of a volunteer at HMNS-SL.

“Ranger let the kids climb all over him. He was just a big pillow,” Hope said. “They were very well-trained, well-behaved dogs. As much as my kids love dogs, they were a little frightened at first. We don’t have one of our own. I have an allergy. But once they got acclimated to the situation, and they realized the dogs were well-trained and mild-mannered, the girls warmed up quickly.”

Hope learned about the P.A.W.S. Reading Program in the summer of 2014 when she was searching for activities for a Girl Scouts group field trip. She found information about the program on the HMNS-SL web site, but the logistics didn’t work out for the whole group. This time around, though, the program was great for two girls on a birthday adventure. She called up the museum to see if she could negotiate a birthday package, and Program Manager Kavita Self was happy to oblige.


Maddie read to Jasmine until she fell asleep for a mid-morning nap.

“Kavita is a joy to be around,” Hope said. “She loves her job. She told me to give her a heads-up before we got there so they’d be ready for us.”

The Sanders family hadn’t been to the Sugar Land museum in “quite some time,” Hope said, and when they got there, the expansion of the collection in the past couple of years astounded her.

“We were completely taken aback by how much it has to offer and how much it has grown,” Hope said. “They greeted us and gave us a welcome gift. We thought that was so kind. They showed us the new exhibits. Maddie is a lover of treehouses, so we played around there. They went above and beyond to make us feel special.”


Nola, Maddie’s sister, enjoyed her time in the TreeHouses exhibit at HMNS-SL.

The family saw geodes in the earth science exhibit and popped outside to watch butterflies in the butterfly garden. The only feature they missed out on was the paleontology exhibit, but there was plenty of entertainment for the whole family, let alone a single girl.

“I had no idea it was going to be anything greater than reading with dogs,” Hope said. “The people there knew her and kept telling her happy birthday. She loved the dogs so much. We had such a lovely time, and it all happened because the people there made it happen. We’re very appreciative.”

When they left the museum, the family stopped by Bernie’s Burger Bus in Bellaire for lunch, where they told everyone about their experience, Hope said.

Geology Rocks! How I got involved with Occidental Petroleum

by Tania Campbell


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.


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.


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.


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.