School’s (almost) out for summer: Time to xplore with our Xplorations Summer Camps!

Summer Camp is here again!  As we busily prepare, buying all the weird odds and ends it takes to run camp here (everything from plastic spoons to sheep eyeballs), I thought I would share a bit about camp with you.

Xplorations Summer Camp 14Recently I gave a presentation to fellow HMNS staff members about Xplorations Summer Camp, just a little informal FYI. I was surprised at how many of them stopped me later in the day and said, “I didn’t know that ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­_________.” 

The No. 1 item they commented on was the sheer size of our summer camps. We have approximately 550 campers per week at HMNS in Hermann Park. This means that, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, we are larger than your average elementary school each week for the eight weeks of camp. 

Because of this, we take safety very seriously … which brings us to the second most surprising camp fact I shared: Staffers were also amazed to learn that all the full-time Youth Education Programs staff regularly has First-Aid, Epi-Pen injection, and Heart Saver/AED training. We have found that parents really like getting their campers back in the afternoon in same condition as when they signed them in in the morning. To that end, we feel like we should be prepared for a whole range of potential problems — everything from a Band-Aid solve-able boo-boo to a zombie apocalypse.

Our number one goal is to keep our campers safe!  A close second is to have fun while learning.

And because we are always learning new things around here, I learned how to make this infographic with some of the other numbers and statistics our staff found interesting about Xplorations Summer Camp. 

Summer Camp InfographicIf you haven’t signed up your little scientists, you’d better do it quickly.  Spots are vanishing before our eyes! 

Camp is an excellent, hands-on way to introduce kids to topics in science. They learn, have fun and are able to explore themes and careers that can help them change the world. Perfect for kids age 6-12, sign up for Xplorations Summer Camps today! Click here to see our full catalog of age-specific camps.

Educator How-To: Mimicking weather with convection currents

There has been a lot of strange weather this spring. Temperatures in North Dakota reached -60°F — which is about the same temperature at the surface of Mars, and about 50°F colder than the North Pole on the same day. 

Meanwhile, in Australia, temperatures reached over 120°F! California is at its driest point since they started keeping records in 1849. And just recently, a bout of deadly tornadoes tore through the Midwest.

The rapid changes happening on the surface of the Earth, like hurricanes and tornadoes, and the slower changes happening under the Earth’s surface, like earthquakes and volcanoes, are as awe-inspiring as they can be terrifying.  Understanding the dynamic Earth helps us prepare for the worst that Mother Nature has to offer.

On that note, here’s a simple but really cool experiment you can do to get you started on the path to meteorology mastery. With a few simple items, you, too, can create a convection current.

Activity: Convection Currents

Materials:
-Large, clear container with a depth of at least two inches (a Pyrex loaf pan would work)
-Red and blue food coloring
-Ice cube tray and access to a freezer
-Water
-Electric kettle, stove or microwave to boil water
-Styrofoam cup to hold very hot water

Procedure:

  1. Dye water blue using food coloring (make it pretty dark). Then freeze in an ice cube tray. When you have your ice cubes made, move on to the remaining steps.
  2. Begin to heat water in an electric kettle. You’ll use it later on.
  3. Fill a clear container with tap water, and then set it on the table to settle. The water should be as still as possible, so try not to jostle the table.
  4. Carefully place a blue ice cube at one edge of the clear container. The blue ice makes it easier to see what happens to the cold water melting off of the cube. You should notice where the cold blue water goes in the clear container.  View the container from the side — your eyes should be about the same height as the water.
  5. Repeat this process again to make sure it isn’t a fluke! (It’s not…)
  6. The cold water tends to sink down. (It is denser — heavier for its size — than the room temperature water). So what do you expect warm water to do if we added some to the bowl? Let’s find out.
  7. Add several drops of red food coloring to the bottom of the plastic or Styrofoam cup. Pour approximately half a cup of heated water into the cup. Lower the cup close to the surface of the water near one edge of your demo tank, and pour a small amount of the hot red water into the tank. Try to pour it so it runs down the side of the container and try to disturb the water as little as possible.
  8. Does the red water do what you expected?

What’s Going On Here?

So how does this relate to the weather? Well, it’s all about convection!

Convection is the action of warm air rising and cold air sinking. You are using water to model some things that also happen in the atmosphere because sometimes air moves in similar ways to water. You probably guessed that the blue water represents a cold air mass and the red water represents the warm, unstable air mass.

A thunderstorm is caused by unstable air and convection plays an important part. A body of warm air is forced to rise by an approaching cold front. Other things can cause warm air to rise, like a mountain slope. In this experiment, the cold water sinks while the warmer red water rises, or stays higher than the blue.

Can’t get enough of the science of weather and natural disasters?  We’ve got four things to quench your thirst for all things weather!

1. In a new special exhibit open this summer, Nature Unleashed: Inside Natural Disasters, you will come face-to-face with the inside of a tornado, create your own volcano and earthquake, and witness the aftermath of several historical disasters. You’ll see why these events happen and how we study to better predict them.

2. On the lower level of the Museum, you can step in front of the camera and join KHOU Channel 11 Chief Meteorologist Chita Johnson for a severe weather update — with you as the weather reporter! It’s lights, camera, action! as you become the star of the show on a replica of the Channel 11 weather set!

3. Are you ready for nature’s fury? Force 5 in the Planetarium is your chance to survive three Category 5 storms — a hurricane, a tornado and a solar eruption — without any rain, wind or dangerous radiation. Discover the causes of weather catastrophes and venture into the middle of the action when nature goes Force 5!

4. For the smaller scientist in your family, check out Calamity Camp for 6 and 7 year olds and Nature Unleashed for 8 and 9 year olds. In Calamity Camp, you will tame a twister, battle a blizzard, hunt a hurricane and much more as you explore and experiment to discover nature’s awe-inspiring fury. Nature Unleashed is an exciting interactive journey to the center of the Earth, where we’ll explore earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis and more!

No matter how you explore weather at HMNS this summer, you’ll be blown away!

Camper for a day: How I learned to love robots and make model magic

“Today we will: build a robotic hand; build a roving chassis for your robotic prototype; program your partner; study gearations; learn robotic parts; visit the Wiess Energy Hall and build a model magic robot.”

So began my day as a Roving Robot Xplorations camper, when I was greeted by this extensive, exciting to-do list.

All in a day’s work

Between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., I accomplished more as an Xplorations camper than I do on the average workday. (This is not to say I’m not a dedicated worker, but rather a testament to the absurdly energetic, ambitious souls that staff our Summer Camp Program.)

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

Above is a cleverly crafted robotic hand. Folds demonstrate where joints occur most naturally, and a simple system of drinking straws and string quickly illustrates to the 6 and 7-year-old class [plus this old broad] how human tendons and robotic phalanges can work similarly.

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

During a break between crafts, we studied how gears interact with this battery-operated board, which spins one gear in the center at varying speeds, allowing students to explore how the gears, direction and speed interact.

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

Our model magic interlude included this little guy, which reminded me of a cross between Stitch, Wall-E and X-Men’s Cyclops.

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

The above drawing illustrates the properly labeled parts of a robot in robotic terminology. (It must be noted that my superior 26-year-old hand control did not go unnoticed, nor did the addition of a mustache go unappreciated.)

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

Perhaps my favorite part of the day was “program your partner,” in which we employed robotic commands to direct our partner to grasp a tennis ball. Only minor chaos ensued.

Camper for a Day: Roving Robots

All in all it was a terrific day, and I was left with something special to remember it by, thanks to this sneaky selfie.

Are you craftier than a fifth-grader? For me, the answer was no: Xplorations from the inside

You’ve heard of our Xplorations Summer Camps — the sell-out science fests that bring thousands of kids to HMNS each summer. You probably know registration deadlines, details of the camp catalog and maybe even the peak times for carpool. But do you know what an average day in the life of a camper looks like?

I do, thanks to our camp organizers. And I’ve got the pictures to prove it:

photoI arrived at Earth’s Wild Ride on a “Thirsty Thursday,” during which each camper was required to list their favorite beverage on their name tag as a means to get to know one another. I kept it honest — but PG.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper. We kicked the day off with a book about the arctic landscape, in keeping with the day’s cold theme, and followed it up by practicing our seal sounds.

Next up, it was craft time.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper. Each camper constructed an arctic landscape using construction paper, Styrofoam, imagination, and a little bit of magic also known as instant snow.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper. (The material, which expands when it comes into contact with water, lost some of its allure when it was also revealed as the filling of choice for most diapers.)

We followed that craft up with another in the form of a faux glacier, which we filled with assorted sizes of rocks. These would be melted later with a hair dryer (the classroom method for modeling accelerated climate change) to study the erratics, or rock deposits, left by melting, retreating ice.

Lunchtime provided the perfect fodder for my weekly #throwbackthursday post on Instagram, courtesy of Bill Nye the Science Guy on DVD.

After we’d snacked sufficiently, the class headed to the Giant Screen Theatre for a spectacular 3D screening of Titans of the Ice Age.

Post-theater we were out in the open, out-of-doors, for a geyser demonstration. With the help of some studly pink safety goggles, Mentos and a liter of carbonated beverage, Mr. Colin was able to convey the physics behind these geological gushers.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper. Back in the classroom, we met two ingenious Ecoteens for a physics demonstration. Here, we explore how durable a nose is your center of gravity:

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper. As if our day weren’t full enough, we concluded with the creation of an incredible edible: snowflakes crafted with mini marshmallows and toothpicks. Can you tell which of these belongs to a 26-year-old and which belongs to somebody who can count their age on one finger?

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper.

Inside Xplorations: A day in the life of a camper.

I’ll never tell.