No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!

Ready, set, STEM! 2016 HMNS Outreach programs focus on physical fitness!

Get yourself in gear this summer with the Houston Museum of Natural Science and our Science Start Outreach programs! It’s never too early to register for these super fun educational activities.

Take the first steps to physical fitness by understanding how the human body works and how it compares to other animals with our brand new Body Works programs! There will be three different programs, each focusing on a different portion of the body: Movin’ and Shakin’, Pump It Up and Head Honcho.

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How do the different parts of your body work in coordination to throw a football? We’ll discuss human anatomy in Science Start: Body Works!

Any discussion of sports and fitness needs to include a lengthy section on the human body’s skeleton and muscles, and we’ll tackle those topics in Movin’ and Shakin’! The components of our endoskeleton give our body its shape and stability; it would be pretty tough to shoot some hoops without bones! The muscles, tendons and ligaments allow for efficient and calculated motion that lets humans do everything from riding a bike to kicking a ball.

We’ll explore differences between our arms and the appendages of other animals that have different purposes, like a bird’s wing or a whale’s flipper. We’ll discover how our muscles work together to make simple actions like smiling possible. And we’ll do it all with museum specimens and a museum educator leading the way!

Next, it’s important to understand how the body gets the energy it needs to keep going. Pump It Up takes a look at the heart, blood and kidneys and how they work together to keep the body running smoothly. The bloodstream is vital for exercise, as our red blood cells carry oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, supplying cells in muscles with important resources to continue working properly. Of course, the blood won’t get very far without the pumping action of the heart, and the bloodstream would not be as effective without the filtering power of the kidneys.

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In Pump It Up, we’ll compare the human heart with that of an animal much smaller than us (a rat) and an animal much larger (a cow). We will take a look at the rainbow of different colors of blood represented by various animals around the world as well as how human kidneys keep our blood pure. We’ll certainly get your heart racing!

Of course, to complete an action as complex as throwing a curveball, there has to be a manager, coordinating all of the motions to produce a consistent result. That’s the head honcho, so to speak, or the brain! The human brain has around 100 billion neurons, and many of those have hundreds of synapses (essentially connections between neurons). It’s estimated that there are over 100 trillion synapses in the human brain!

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In Head Honcho, we’ll compare our brain with animals of all kinds, from the ancient Tyrannosaurus rex to modern sharks. From there, we’ll look at the skulls and teeth of other animals and how we can figure out what that animal ate from what its teeth look like.

Each of these programs correlates to TEKS objectives and is perfect for young learners! Book now for these awesome programs, beginning June 1.

To schedule a presentation, contact us at outreach@hmns.org or (713) 639-4758!

Ecoteens build model artifacts for Block Party, opening soon

by John Pederson and Marce Stayer

The Aztecs, one of the greatest Mesoamerican cultures, had all the hallmarks of an advanced civilization. One of their most famous structures, the Templo Mayor, graces the Aztec portion of the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. It is a fantastic temple complex, the main religious center of the Aztec capital, and is a feat of architectural genius.

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A true-color version of a model Templo Mayor will grace the demonstration shelves of Block Party, HMNS’s new interactive exhibit. And it was built by Moran Ecoteens

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is building a new exhibit called Block Party inspired by the materials used in the construction industry. Curated models of exhibit hall pieces (and visitor-submitted ones) will be on display at the new exhibit. So when the Moran Ecoteens were presented the task of making some of them, an Aztec temple was a popular choice. An image of a temple as inspiration was printed out, and we were ready to build…or so we thought.

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John and Connor solve building support problems while constructing the pyramid.

Turns out, not all toy building blocks are useful for this purpose. And after we grabbed enough bricks to make the first two exterior layers of the temple (e.g. the Step Pyramid at Saqqara has six “layers”), it was all we could do to prevent the third level from collapsing under its own weight. (To save bricks, we had only built the outside of each layer, leaving the inside hollow.) Eventually, over the course of several days, I worked out a system of struts, columns, and crossties to hold the layers together; the hollow inside was now full of scaffolding. This allowed us to construct a model with accurate dimensions, while reflecting realistic building techniques. The Aztec temple walls were stone encased in painted plaster; our temple reflects this with rigid supports enclosed by a decorative outside shell.

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John stands with his model Aztec pyramid built from plastic blocks.

Our multicolored model is the prototype of a future model of the Templo Mayor. The new one will be made of realistically-colored bricks and have a simpler brick-laying scheme, more similar to the Aztec inspiration. Hopefully, those who see it will appreciate both the spirit of the Aztec culture and the engineering genius that defines the monument.

 

Cream of the Science Crop: Becoming an Ecoteen

You might be wondering how you can get involved doing cool projects for the museum like the Block Party demos. Here’s some information and application advice directly from Marce Stayer, director of the Ecoteen program.

The Moran Ecoteens are the museum’s teen volunteer program, open to teens ages 14 to 17 and rising ninth grade through rising 11th grade. Teens may apply beginning in December by sending their contact information to Stayer. You’ll be asked to provide your name, street address, a phone number and an email where they can be reached. The first week in January, information packets and applications are sent out to all who apply. Applicants will be asked to include a résumé, a letter of recommendation from a current teacher and an essay on the teen’s favorite area of science. The essay can be related to artifacts in our permanent exhibit halls, but it doesn’t have to be. If you’re interested, work hard to write well! We always receive more applications than slots available for this very competitive program.

Completed applications are due Feb. 28. As applications are turned in, teens are invited to schedule an interview. The process must be complete by the second week in March.

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Ecoteens built this model Dimetrodon skull for Block Party, as well.

Selected teens are required to volunteer for one two-week session during the summer. Xplorations summer camp runs on a two-week-on, one-week-off schedule and Ecoteens may choose from these two-week sessions. A new Ecoteen is required to volunteer in the classroom as his or her first assignment. At the end of each week, the teen’s performance is graded by his teacher and turned in to me. If his performance is satisfactory, the Ecoteen may volunteer for additional weeks and have opportunities to work in other areas.

In addition to classroom assignments, Ecoteens are trained to work the touch carts and permanent halls throughout the museum and some are allowed to work in the Special Exhibit halls. They are trained by master docents from the adult volunteer guild for these assignments. They also give science demonstrations to the classes during camp sessions. We have movable demos in Chemistry and Physics, we have a catapult and trebuchet demo, and this past summer, one of the Ecoteens wrote a biology demo called “Microscope Safari” and another created a Morse code demonstration.

Lastly, the Ecoteens help the Youth Education department by working on various crafts that are used during camp — wands and hats for Wizard Academy, belts for Star Warriors Academy, plaster footprints, teeth and claws for the various paleo classes, giant T. rex footprint cut-outs, complete skeletons made out of paper bones, and whatever the classes need. We also write and perform the CSI crime scene on Fridays and put on the Wizard Academy Triwizard tournament. In short, we jump in wherever we are needed!

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, now’s the time to ask for an application so you can get started and be competitive. Best of luck!

Editor’s note: John Pederson is a Moran Ecoteen Coordinator and high school student. Marce Stayer’s official title is Director of the Moran Ecoteen Volunteer Center.

Late Night with Catalysts: New program offers after-hours fun for the young at heart

When I tell people I’m the Overnight Coordinator at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, I usually get one of two reactions. It’s either a sarcastic “Oh, does everything come to life at night?” or an astounded “People can spend the night there?!” While I’m in the Youth Education Programs department and typically work with the kiddos, we decided to partner with the Catalysts young professionals group at HMNS to create a late-night event for the young at heart. On July 30 we had our first-ever adult late night at HMNS exclusively for the Catalysts group.

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The museum up late. From left to right, Emily Lutz, Elizabeth Marlowe, Jayme Schlimper (in the bear mask), Matti Hammett, Kelli Lozada, Nicole Temple, Julia Russell, Kelsey Friedemann, Madison Weinhoffer, Katie Conlan, and Sahil Patel.

Since it’s summertime, we decided to take everyone on a trip down memory lane to good ol’ summer camp. Of course, we had to make it a trip with a bit of that HMNS pizzazz. Late-nighters could “roast” s’mores in our toaster ovens as an indoor (and flameless) spin on everyone’s favorite campfire cuisine. We had a make-your-own trail mix bar complete with barbecue flavored mealworms as an optional but delicious addition. We also had some Cool Chemistry demonstrations by seasoned Outreach presenter Sahil Patel and flashlight-led tours of the Morian Hall of Paleontology with Connor Eichenwald from the museum’s W.T. & Louise J. Moran Ecoteen Program. Finally, if campers wanted to capture the moment, we had Smilebooth there with a bevy of youth ed-crafted, camp-themed props! See some of our favorite snapshots below.

If a summer camp-themed late-night sounds like your idea of a night well spent, then Catalysts is the group for you! Our young professionals group gives you access to a variety of events throughout the year including tickets to an exclusive Catalysts events each quarter and tickets to our Mixers and Elixirs events during the summer. That’s on top of the usual membership benefits like free access to our renowned permanent exhibition halls and advance notice of upcoming events and special exhibitions. Visit our Catalysts Web page to join today!

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From left to right, Christine Dubbert, Sahil Patel, Madison Weinhoffer, and Daniel Echeverri.

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From left to right, Clark Kellogg, Nicole Temple, and Allison Kellogg.

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…and Sahil Patel, again. :)

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Top, left to right, Julia Russell, Zack Kammer, Hunter Robinson (bear mask), and Dalia Rihani. Bottom, from left, Britt Baumgardner and Freddy Dabaghi.

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Dain Geist and Rachel Wilkinson.

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Morgan and Elizabeth Hann.