Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.


Inventory before HMNS hits…


…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

cart 2

We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

cart 3 small

When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

cart 5

Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

loading 2

Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

loading 3

…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

unloading 1

Reverse Tetris begins…

unloading 2

…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

xtra cart 1

HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).

Summer Camper of the Week: Get Set To Be A Vet!

School’s out, and you know what that means – summer camp fun at HMNS!

HMNS Summer Camps: Get Set To Be A Vet!
See more summer camp fun in our set on Flickr!

This week’s photo comes from our Get Set To Be A Vet camp, where kids perform dissections to learn the inner working of an animal’s body, learn what a vet does to take care of our animal friends, and gets plenty of hands-on experience with live animals!

Looking for something fun an educational for the kids to do this summer? Lots of summer camp classes have space available – check it out!

See you at Summer Camp!

Summer Adventures Continue

School is out for summer but it’s not too late to get your kids out of the house and into the museum! Here is a chance for them to learn and have fun, by attending one of our many summer camps. Kids can choose their favorite topics and spend a whole week learning about science and history. These camps still have a few spots open for the weeks of July 5 and July 12.

A Camper holds up an impression of her teeth that she made in Crime Scene Investigators

Check out Crime Scene Investigators, where kids can learn how to lift and develop fingerprints, sample soils, cast footprints and teeth, and make rope impressions. Use special software to create a face to match the description of witnesses. Assemble your own crime kit and use your skills to collect clues at a crime scene in the museum.

In Junior Science Magic, campers discover how physics and chemistry make magic. They experiment with optical illusions and things that glow in the dark. They master cool chemistry tricks; concoct slimy mixtures and potions that change colors. They will also learn how magicians read minds and will be able to fool their friends with coin and card tricks.

 DJ Learns about static electricity
 Anaya punctures an inflated balloon with a skewer

Alone, marooned, scared, cold and hungry? Could your kid survive? You betcha! Campers learn to distill drinking water and make it into a refreshing drink that would quench any thirst. They will participate in an indoor campfire cookout, learn to navigate by the stars, tell time from the sun, and build their own compass. They’ll make their own sunscreen and find out what kind of bugs make good snacks.

A camper signals in morse code using a mirror

Don’t miss your chance to sign up!

Treasure the Summers of Your Life: Summer Camps at HMNS!

Summer is a time for exploring and growing, and there is no better place for learning and fun than at HMNS Xplorations Summer Camps!

As a child, my very best teachers taught English and American History, so I grew to love these subjects.  Either my science teachers were not my strongest teachers or I fell into the trap that existed at the time—science was for boys.  Because of my background (or lack of background) in science, it is very important to me that my granddaughters love the excitement and wonder around them.  Summer camp at HMNS is the perfect place for this love to be planted and nurtured. 


In addition to camps at HMNS, camps are held during selected weeks in The Woodlands and in Sugar Land.

Camp topics are age-appropriate.  For example, my oldest granddaughter, Abbie, has taken Amazing Animals, Booms and Blast-Offs, Build it Big, Art Smart, DinoMite, Bug-a-Boo and Waterworks.  Last summer during Waterworks, the students made bubbles.  In the photo to the left, Abbie is concentrating hard on a bubble made from soap, water, glycerin and straws.

In the same class, the students were fascinated when a Hula Hoop and wading pool plus the bubble ingredients created a bubble that surrounded each of them.  Magic!

This amazed camper pictured below is totally surrounded.  What child would not be fascinated by experiences like this?


For summer, 2009, the Youth Education Programs Staff headed by Nicole and Kat have added three new camps:  Wild, Wild West, It’s Easy Being Green and Freeze Frame.

campWild, Wild West will be held at the Museum and at both The Woodlands and Sugar Land locations.  This camp will help cowboys and cowgirls discover the science and symbols of the Wild West as they try lassoing, churning butter, branding and participate in a cowpoke cookout.

It’s Easy Being Green will be held at the Museum and in The Woodlands.  As campers discover that it is easy being green they will experiment with water, wind and alternative energy powered model cars and design a miniature green city.

Freeze Frame will be held only at HMNS.  This camp teaches about old fashioned photography as campers discover the inner workings of a camera by dissecting an eyeball, constructing a pinhole camera, using the sun to make prints, and much, much more.

Its not to late to join in the fun, we still have spots available for the summer! You can register for Xplorations Summer Camps online. If you have a question about camp, please call the camp registrar at 713 639 4625.

I usually write about books, so I’ll close with a quote from Stuart Littleby E. B. White.  Stuart reminds us to “Treasure the summers of your life.”  A great way to give your children a summer to remember is to enroll them in Xplorations Summer Camps and watch their sense of wonder grow!