Wonder Women of STEM: Beatrice Alice Hicks, a woman ahead of her time

Editor’s Note: This post is the third in a series featuring influential women from STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields in the lead up to HMNS’ annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event, February 21, 2015. Click here to get involved! 

Born in 1919 in Orange, New Jersey, Beatrice Alice Hicks was a woman ahead of her time. In the course of her life, she earned multiple degrees, pioneered the woman’s role in the field of engineering, and co-founded a women’s engineering society.

As a child, she was inspired by the construction of the empire state building to pursue a career in engineering. She attained her first degree in chemical engineering from Newark College of Engineering. Shortly afterwards, she became the first woman engineer hired at Western Electric in 1942 where she designed telephone equipment that would later be used for the first long distance phone system. Upon leaving Western Electric, she continued her education at Stevens Institute of Technology and received her master’s degree in physics.

Hicks continued her innovative approach to engineering when she joined her late father’s company as chief engineer. In 1962, Hicks patented a density switch. It monitored the density of a sealed environment and signaled when the density changed. Her invention was integral in the Apollo space missions to the moon! It informed the astronauts if there was a leak in the ship. She created a number of other environmental sensors throughout the duration of her career that were used in additional space missions as well as aircraft development. 

All of Beatrice Hick’s personal accomplishments were extremely impressive, but she wanted to do more. At the time, the United States was in need of more engineers, and Hicks had the perfect solution – women engineers! She felt that women were not being encouraged to study engineering.

In 1951, she and a few female engineers co-founded the Society of Women Engineers (SWE). Their goal was “to inform the public of the availability of qualified women for engineering positions; to foster a favorable attitude in industry for women engineers; and to contribute to their professional advancement.” When SWE started, it had 65 members and it has grown to include over 16,000 women! 

Hicks was elected president of SWE in 1951 and she travelled the country giving speeches and interviews about the role of women in engineering. Encouraging women to pursue a higher education, and serving as a role model for young engineers for generations to come. We hope you will stop by the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) booth this year at GEMS and be inspired by these female engineers! Come see Beatrice Hicks’ legacy and get excited about engineering.


HMNS is highlighting females that made contributions to STEM fields leading up to our annual GEMS (Girls Exploring Math and Science) event, February 21, 2015!

Girls Exploring Math and Science (GEMS) is an event that showcases some of the great things girls do with science, technology, engineering and math! Students can present a project on a STEM related subject for the chance to earn prize money for their school.

Educator How-To: Crystals, Geometry and Chemistry

Math is beautiful and inescapable. Especially in nature, patterns and equations just keep showing up.  The path of an orbiting planet, the growth of a nautilus, arrangements of leaves on a stem, the efficient packing of a honeycomb; we can find rules and algorithms and make predictions from them.

Crystals, with their obediently repeating structure, are an elegant manifestation of the ‘rules.’  To be a crystal, your building blocks (atoms, molecules, or ions) must follow patterns over and over and over and over and over.  Atoms, being predictable, simply do what their chemical properties and the conditions (temperature, pressure, etc.) indicate.  So what exactly does it take to go from a mess of elements and compounds to this example from the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land?

If you’ve ever tried making rock candy from sugar water or ornaments from borax solution, then you have some idea what it entails: something dissolved that is capable of making crystals has to slowly come out of solution – usually the longer you give it, the bigger it can grow and the slower it grows, the more perfect the crystals.

Freezing water into ice also gives you crystals; they just don’t stick around and let you handle them conveniently at room temperature. Water and solutions in water aren’t the only way to get crystals; molten rock cooling (slowly) can also give crystals, but that’s a little tricky for home experimentation.

So time is your friend for crystal growth, pressure is a factor, and it needs to be easier for atoms to attach to the forming crystal than to stay in solution.  Having a solution that is saturated or supersaturated so it can barely hold all of the dissolved material helps. It also helps to have places for the crystals to start forming; a tiny ‘seed’ crystal or sometimes even just a rough spot on a surface can provide the nucleation sites to kick off crystal growth. Are there other ways crystals and the things we consider ‘gems’ can form? Yes!

For those of us with shorter attention spans, a cool way so see the process is with crystallizing hand warmers – a pouch holds a saturated solution of sodium acetate. When you flex a metal disk inside the pouch, you kick off a chain of crystallization and end up with solid material (and released heat energy).  Because the process is so fast in the hand warmer, the individual crystals are very small and jumbled up (polycrystalline); oriented in all different directions, and as a mass they are opaque (light is refracting all over the place) and relatively dull rather than shiny and smooth as slower-forming large crystal faces can be.  The structure of most metals is also polycrystalline, and things like plastic and glass (even the kinds misleadingly labeled “crystal!”) are amorphous.

The external crystal shapes we see are related to the internal structure – there are a lot of different ways atoms can pack together.

Practically, there will always be some disruption in a crystal structure, no matter how perfect it may appear, which allows for some very cool effects – crystals “twinning,” impurities that alter the color; the reason ruby and sapphire (both corundum crystals) appear different.

Crystals aren’t always pretty! Sometimes we want to prevent crystallization to avoid things like kidney stones, but crystals are useful for all kinds of things; optical equipment and lasers, X-ray crystallography to figure out structures of proteins (and once upon a time, DNA), and silicon chips used in electronic devices. 

Whether you prefer your crystals practical or decorative, they are amazing!

Can’t get enough crystals? Check out the Crystals of India exhibit at HMNS Sugar Land (free for members!)



Unmasking Everyday Superheroes with HMNS Outreach!

Up in the sky, look! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! Wait, no, it actually is a bird, flying faster than most cars.

Superpowers, such as the Flash-like super speed of the peregrine falcon above, are abundant throughout the natural world and specifically highlighted by several specimens in the HMNS Outreach collection.

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Meet Hamilton the blue-tongued skink, who has the ability to regrow most of his tail should it be separated from his body!

In addition to a stuffed peregrine falcon that travels with our Texas Wildlife program, the TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels lineup is full of noteworthy unlikely heroes. Like Wolverine of X-Men, traveling specimens such as our blue-tongued skink from Reptiles & Amphibians or starfish from Invertebrates exhibit regeneration after loss of tail and limb, respectively.

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Vinny the vinegaroon has an awesome superpower, the ability to spray acid with his abdomen!

Our newest LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels program, Awesome Arachnids, gets your Spidey-Sense tingling with a few undercover superheroes. The program will bring out specimens such as an emperor scorpion, which glows electric blue under ultraviolet light, and a vinegaroon, which sprays an acetic acid and caprylic acid mixture from its abdomen when threatened. And don’t forget about the wall-crawling creatures that spawned Spiderman! Awesome Arachnids also features two tarantulas, who can climb with special retractable claws! 

Superheroes like Batman and Iron Man use science and technology to their advantage when fighting crime, and after a ConocoPhillips Science On Stage presentation, your knowledge of chemistry or physics can rival theirs! Learn about the super heat used to produce colors in fireworks with Cool Chemistry, or explore the tricks anyone can use to acquire super strength through simple machines with Motion Commotion!

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Stepping back in time 70 million years could have brought you face to face with these supersized T. rex teeth!

Very few superheroes have the ability to travel through time, but kids can harness this ability through Chevron Earth Science On Wheels! Shift back millions of years and explore the characteristics and adaptations of prehistoric life with Dinosaur Discovery, or combine time travel with super smarts in Know Your Rocks, in which students save the day by classifying different types of rocks.

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Children and adults alike love the Discovery Dome for its superb selection of shows, available in English and Spanish!

We certainly can’t forget about the superhero qualities of the men and women working in outer space. With hazards ranging from freezing temperatures to rapidly moving matter to a lack of air, outer space is a place fraught with danger. Learn more about the extremes of life in space and much more with our Discovery Dome, which features a wide selection of shows from the Burke Baker Planetarium!

Every hero has a story, and you can unmask your own with HMNS Outreach, courtesy of your friendly neighborhood science museum.

Contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758 to book your HMNS Outreach program today!

What has eight legs and is coming to a school near you? “Awesome Arachnids” from HMNS!

In 2015, The Cockrell Butterfly Center will be making a couple of new outreach programs available to classrooms all over the Houston area. One of which was given to kindergarten students at St. Francis Episcopal School in December, and it was a hit, Awesome Arachnids!

For almost 10 years, we have been fascinating kids with “Amazing Arthropods”, a program that introduces students to members of the major classes of arthropods, mostly insects. We always include a tarantula to represent arachnids and can get quite carried away with talking about them. Unfortunately, we are only afforded about 5 minutes per presentation to do this. This frustrated me, as arachnids are one of the most feared and misunderstood classes of arthropods, but they are also SO COOL! So, the idea of Awesome Arachnids was born!

In this presentation, Entomologists from the Cockrell Butterfly Center will introduce you to some of our most interesting eight-legged creatures and explain the features that make them different from their six-legged cousins and other relatives.

Have you ever wondered what a tarantula feels like? Have you ever seen a scorpion change color right before your eyes? Can you even name any other types of arachnids? Don’t worry, that’s what we’re here for!

Here is a sneak peek at some of the stars of our show…

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Rosie, a Chilean Rose Hair Tarantula, is one of two terrific tarantulas you can meet during the Awesome Arachnids program!

Rosie and Peanut, 20 and 10 years old, respectively, are two of our special tarantula ambassadors! They will help ease you into the world of spiders – one of the most feared types of animals on the planet. As many as 55% of females and 18% of males in Western society are estimated to have arachnophobia – a fear of spiders and other arachnids. Although spiders are venomous, and venom CAN cause people harm, more often than not, a spider is harmless to us. No one helps illustrate that point better than Peanut and Rosie, with their furry appearance and docile nature. We will teach you all about spiders; which ones are ok, which ones to avoid, and how they help us way more than they could ever harm us.

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Vinny the Vinegaroon may look scary, but he’s really a shy guy with a very unique defense mechanism!

Vinny is a bizarre looking creature, one that most people have never come across before! Vinegaroons, also known as whip scorpions, inhabit tropical and sub-tropical areas all over the world. They have no venom glands, so cannot bite or sting. They are very shy, spending most of their time underneath rotten logs or rocks. At night, they hunt for insects, worms, and slugs. They help us control cockroach and cricket populations. Why are they called vinegaroons? Well, you’ll have to meet Vinny to find out. Once you meet him, you’ll want to meet more bizarre looking creatures like him!

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Pinchy the Emperor Scorpion is one of the largest scorpions in the world!

Scorpions are another arachnid that most people fear, and for good reason! That intimidating looking stinger can pack quite a punch! Fortunately, the venom in their sting is formulated to act on other invertebrates, so it is USUALLY not dangerous to us, but can be quite painful! Emperor scorpions, like Pinchy, have very mild venom, no more severe than a bee sting. They are also more likely to pinch with their large, strong claws than sting, hence the name! Scorpions are incredible animals and have many characteristics that set them apart from other arachnids. Want to know more? We’ll be happy to share with you!

Children will be allowed to gently pet arachnids which pose no threat to their safety, such as the tarantulas. Necessary precautions are taken by the presenters to ensure the safety of the children and the animals at all times.

So there you have it! Hopefully we’ve whet your appetite for more fun facts and stories about these fantastic creepy crawlies! If you’re interested in bringing Awesome Arachnids to your school – just email us at outreach@hmns.org, or give us a call at 713-639-4758!