Exploring the Natural Sciences with Blocks: It Can Be Done!

Nothing inspires both children and adults quite the way a museum does. A close second is the inspiration that both the young and old find playing and experimenting with various kinds of toys that encourage building and construction.

Exploration of the natural sciences and imaginative construction play are a natural fit. The museum’s new exhibit Block Party provides a unique opportunity for families to first explore the natural sciences in the museum’s exhibit halls and then to experience hands-on creative exploration as they get up to their elbows in interlocking bricks that can be used to build anything imaginable!

It’s well-established that block or building play are ideal avenues to develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, capacity for divergent thinking, collaborative skills, and spatial thinking in children. In addition, there’s evidence connecting complex block play and construction toys with advanced math skills in later life. Building play is also beneficial for the brains of tweens and adolescents, and don’t be fooled, they still love to build and play. Recent studies link construction play with superior performance on tests of spatial skills and mathematics for older children.

Structured block play is a term used when a child attempts to recreate a construction by consulting a model or blueprint. This kind of block play calls on a specific skill set that is crucial for many complex tasks. Why not take advantage of the various opportunities available at the museum to collect inspiration for structured block play?

In order for your child to build a recreation of something they observed in the museum, they have to analyze what they saw, perceive the parts that made up the whole, and figure out how the parts relate to one another. Here are some great ideas to get you started. Visit the exhibits and then visit Block Party to build and explore. Please share the great ideas you and your children come up with, and don’t forget to submit your creation to our weekly contest!

Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals

Discover the beautiful gems and minerals and then recreate the geometric structure of minerals using interlocking blocks.

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John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas

Explore models of Maya and Aztec temples and pyramids and then construct your own.

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Morian Hall of Paleontology

Discover all manner of prehistoric fossils and then reconstruct models of biped and quadruped dinosaurs to experiment with balance.

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Welch Hall of Chemistry

Visit the periodic table of elements in the chemistry hall and then model different molecules.

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Cockrell Butterfly Center

Visit the butterflies and observe the amazing symmetry of their wings, then build a symmetrical model of your own using blocks.

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Burke Baker Planetarium

See Robot Explorers in the Planetarium and then create your own model robot to explore other worlds.

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Wortham Giant Screen Theatre

Watch Journey to Space 3D on the big screen and then design a space ship to send to Mars.

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Wiess Energy Hall

Journey through the energy hall and then construct an innovative model drilling platform or solar energy farm.

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Strake Hall of Malacology and Hamman Hall of Texas Coastal Ecology

Discover the amazing world of coastal ecology and mollusks. Then, design and build a model of an artificial reef to be used in conservation efforts.

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Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife and the Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife

Observe the different dioramas and then construct your own museum display using building blocks.

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Have a great time building your relationship with your child by building with blocks! Our brand-new Block Party interactive play area is designed to inspire the imaginations of all ages. Construction has begun and the excitement is building!

The cutting-edge returns to the Burke Baker Planetarium, where astronauts once trained

Think back to the technology of the late 1980s: corded phones, boom boxes, cathode color TVs. In this era, it’s tough to imagine how anyone achieved the remarkable feat of traveling to space and orbiting the Earth without WiFi or contemporary computers. But Americans did it, and we made history!

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Alan Shepard was the second person and first American to travel into space. He reached a height of 116 statute miles in 1961.

Now imagine what it must have been like being in space, orbiting the Earth fast enough to circle all of humanity in 90 minutes. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s strange. You’re already disoriented in this zero-gravity, off-world environment. Not much room for error in your flimsy aluminum ship, and not much of a view.

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When you look out the window, you never know whether you’ll see something familiar or some other constellation only visible to Australia. Even easily-recognizable constellations like Ursa Major can be tough to identify when they’re upside-down and you can only see through a tiny porthole. And what if your navigation equipment went dark? How would you find your way?

Navigating and orienting the space shuttle back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was no easy feat, but with the help of HMNS VP of Astronomy and Physical Sciences Dr. Carolyn Sumners and the Burke Baker Planetarium, astronauts could practice finding their way under strange skies. As a partner with NASA, Sumners’s three-hour stellar orienteering course was required learning for every candidate astronaut aspiring to touch space.

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“The big problem was we had to limit their view to small regions, and they had to be able to find stars in areas you cannot see in Houston,” Sumners said. “We would show them a patch of sky and ask, ‘What do you recognize?’”

The original training program began with Sumners using a Spitz projector, a bulky analog contraption set on cross-braced arms that required the exchange of “star balls” for different views of the sky. The Challenger crew trained using this equipment in ’86, Sumners said. When the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1 digital projector was installed in ’88, lessons were much easier. (Incidentally, Evans & Sutherland also developed NASA flight simulators used by astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.)

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Sumners worked closely with every crew that went into space in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working on their orienteering skills. Her class was so popular and effective, crews would occasionally drop by to brush up or re-test, or just to stop in and say hello (and made an impression when they did).

“The Apollo crew would pop in,” Sumners said. “Many of them were ex-military, so they had the buzz-cut look to them. A lot of gawking went on by the staff.”

With the advent of more reliable digital technology, crews don’t train with Sumners anymore, but partnership with NASA continues, as does her business ties to Evans & Sutherland. The newly-renovated planetarium will feature the world’s first True 8K digital projection system, the Digistar 5, and it was developed by E&S! It’s the clearest, brightest picture of space anywhere on Earth, with software that will allow audiences to see the stars not only in unfamiliar orientations near to our home planet, but from anywhere in the known universe.

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Coupling this projection technology with images from NASA, Sumners expects to bring audiences experiences like the view of the Aurora Borealis from a fish-eye camera mounted on hull of the International Space Station, fed directly through the Cloud.

“They should work beautifully together,” Sumners said.

Astronauts may no longer need orienteering courses, but it’s likely the clarity of this cutting-edge technology will blow even those who have been to space out of this world.

Science Starts with density and distance

A rousing game of “Will it Float?” occasionally played on The Late Show with David Letterman was really just an impressively popular density guessing game. In our recently added Science Start Outreach Program, Discovering Density, we play a similar game, predicting and testing to see what happens when you toss things into a tank of water. The Science Start program is for grades K-2 and travels to schools, daycares, scout groups, and more to educate students with hands-on learning experiences. 

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Sahil tests the hypothesis that a tiny metal car is denser than water and will sink.

The most fun results are the ones that surprise the young students, like a whiffle ball that will not sink even though it is full of holes, a Lego brick (you’ll have to test that one out for yourself), or liquids that can float on or sink through other liquids in a density column.

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Carolyn points out to a class at Passmore Elementary that an object that is floating must be touching the surface of the water in a presentation of the new Discovering Density program.

Making the distinction that density isn’t just about weight or mass or size but instead the comparison between the two can be a tricky concept at first. Similarly, very small and very large numbers, distances, and time scales can be difficult to grasp, so to make it a little easier, you could try holding a planet like Jupiter or maybe Neptune, if you prefer, as we model the vast distances of our solar system and think about scale in Space: Going the Distance.

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Carolyn points out the different types of liquids forming four distinct layers in the density column that she made during the presentation. The density column was given to the group’s teacher after the show so that students could watch it change over time.

Volunteers spread out with their planets to see the relative spaces between their orbits and explore what a model is, why it’s helpful, and what about the model isn’t quite as it is in real life. For our model to be to scale for both the sizes of the planets and for the distances between them is tricky—in a classroom-sized solar system, it’s going to be almost impossible to see most of the planets from most seats, and even the sun seems petite!

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Carolyn holds up a three-foot board that models the planet Jupiter. If Jupiter was just three feet across, the Sun would have to have a diameter of 23 feet!

Book Science Start for your school or scout group today by contacting Greta Brannan at (713) 639-4758 or outreach@hmns.org. For more information on HMNS outreach programs, click here.

Who is Yuri and why are we celebrating Yuri’s Night at Mixers & Elixirs?

Yuri’s Night is upon us, and we’re hosting Mixers & Elixirs: Yuri’s Night on Friday night to celebrate the past, present and future of space exploration.

But wait a second. Who’s Yuri and what’s he got to do with space exploration?

Yuri Gagarin was the first person to be launched into space and orbit the Earth on April 12, 1961. The Russian cosmonaut has since become a symbol of human space exploration and how we can conquer the obstacles that stand between us and the rest of the cosmos. Trapped on our little blue marble in space, for eons we sought to find the truth behind our place in the universe. Now, with technology and an ever-growing catalog of information about the universe, we are starting to venture into our cosmic neighborhood.

Just think of all that’s happened in a little over 50 years — and what 50 more years could bring. We’re peering deeper into space, living in space, and it won’t be long before we (read: everyday people like you and me) can see the darkness of space for ourselves on private space flights.

Yup, there’s certainly a lot to celebrate on Yuri’s Night. So join us tomorrow night and raise a glass to space exploration and explorers everywhere! We’ll have space-themed treats and even “Commander Quest” from Space Center Houston.

Want to get even more excited and inspired? (Of course you do.) Check out the video below from astronaut Chris Hadfield aboard the International Space Station and pictures from cosmic journeys and observations so far!

The Hubble Telescope

Every light in this image from the Hubble Telescope is an entire galaxy.

The Sombrero Galaxy.

The Voyager Spacecraft, which has now traveled into interstellar space — the furthest a spacecraft has ever gone.

Detail of Jupiter from Voyager.

Saturn, as seen from Voyager.