Museum curator thanks his inspiration: a sixth-grade history teacher

As a museum curator, I have the pleasure of working with lots of volunteers. Most of them are students who are interested in archaeology, anthropology and museum careers. This time of the year, as graduation nears, there is an uptick in requests to come visit with me and ask for information and advice. “How did you become a museum curator?” is a question I hear often. “How long do you need to study?” is another one. One of the first things I bring up is that finding employment in anthropology is not easy. However, it is possible. Moreover, I ask my visitors to suggest one field of study where one would be guaranteed a job upon graduation. I can think of only very few.

Van den Bossche, Gaston

Gaston Van den Bossche, a man who made a difference with his students.

The first question – How does one become a museum curator? – has many answers, I am sure. In my case, there was one elementary school teacher who made a difference, now 44 years ago, to be exact. The sixth and final year in elementary school, my class had a teacher who loved history. He loved the city we lived in too, and it just so happened that city had a very long history.

As the year went by, he organized us into groups and assigned various projects. One involved painting a bird’s eye view of what our hometown would have looked like in the Middle Ages. That required research. It also entailed getting covered in paint as we worked on that assignment. Eventually two different canvases were finished. Much to our delight, they were hung in the entrance to the library. In another assignment, we were divided into five or six groups, each named after a Medieval guild. Some of us were the “coopers” or barrel makers, others the “tanners,” “bakers,” etc.  We were given assignments. To get the answers, we had to visit museums and churches, observe and ask questions. It made us interact with the past, and made this past come alive. It became part of what I got interested in. All because of a teacher.

As time went by, that sixth grade class went on to graduate. I found myself continuing down this path of “studying old things.” This took me from a university in Belgium to a U.S. institution in New Orleans, always pursuing the study of these “old things.” Over the years, that meant studying Roman and Greek history, some Egyptian history, and ultimately the art, archaeology, and history of American cultures, especially the Maya.

Photo by Robin Merrit

Photo by Robin Merrit

I have been very blessed to find a job, and to find myself working at a museum, where I now teach visitors, young, old and anyone in between. Sharing what you have learned about a culture that happens to be the topic of an exhibit is a joy. It is very rewarding to see the light come on in a child, when they “get it.” I love hearing visitors say to each other “I did not know that…” as they walk out of an exhibit. I am indebted to my old teacher for this sense of awe. It never left him. I hope it will never leave me.

Sadly, I recently received news that the man who sent me on my quest, and created that spark in me, had passed. Reason for sadness? For sure. Another reason to keep guiding people as much as possible, and maybe, just maybe, make a difference with one or two people? Absolutely. Next time you see a teacher at a reunion, and you know they made a difference in your life, say so. Give them a hug. They deserve it.

Wonder Women of STEM: Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut.

Editor’s Note: This post is the fourth 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!


We’ve seen some amazing women in STEM, but none are quite so out of this world as Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut. In 1992, she orbited the earth for over a week on the space shuttle Endeavor and logged over 190 hours in space!

Dr. Jemison had numerous accomplishments in addition to her space travel. She began her college career at age 16 by attending Stanford University on scholarship. Within 4 years, she graduated with a BS in Chemical Engineering and a BA in African and African-American Studies from Stanford University. She continued her studies at Cornell University where she received her doctorate degree in medicine. A few years later, she proceeded to volunteer for over two years with the Peace Corps in Western Africa where she taught health education and contributed to research concerning the Hepatitis B vaccination among others.

After all of her volunteer work, Jemison applied to be part of the NASA Space Program and was one of 15 people selected out of 2000 to join the Space Program in 1987. She joined her first orbiting mission in 1992 with Endeavor. While aboard Endeavor, she worked with other astronauts on bone cell research along with other experiments and investigations. Although her time in space was short, she was able to claim the title of first female African-American in space. In May of 1993, Dr. Jemison left NASA to teach at Dartmouth College and continue to educate future generations.

In addition to her space travels, Dr. Jemison has a list of accomplishments that would knock your socks off. She can speak four languages, wrote her own book called “Find Where the Wind Goes,” was on the cover of JET Magazine, hosted the World of Wonders TV show, and was voted one of the 50 Most Beautiful People according to People Magazine. If that’s not enough, she’s also got a sense of humor. She talks about her experiences in Brazil for the 20th anniversary of the Apollo missions and she comments, “Wow!! Y’all need to be glad I didn’t go to Brazil before NASA or I’d still be there doing development work and the Samba on the beach.” Like I said, impressive!

Space was not the first major accomplishment for Dr. Mae Jemison, and it certainly won’t be her last. She continues to expand interest in science education through her foundation, The Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence. She created The Earth We Share, international science camp for students as well as a program to encourage hands-on, science education through Teachers.

If you are inspired by women such as Dr. Mae Jemison, then you’ll enjoy meeting some of the local ladies of STEM at GEMS this weekend. Come to HMNS between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. to learn more about science, technology, engineering and math! We’ll even have representatives from NASA!

Educator How-To: Make a Balancing Dipsy!

diplodocusFor those of you who have been going to HMNS for years, you may have noticed that we’ve been missing a rather large lady from our Hall of Paleontology. Our Diplodocus, “Dipsy”, was Houston’s first dinosaur unveiled in 1975 and she was de-installed in September 2013. This was her first trip from home for a well-deserved cleaning. Luckily, she’s due back at HMNS in March! We’re so excited for her to be back that we’ve even put her on our overnight shirts! In honor of her return, we’ve dedicated this month’s Educator How-to to this dynamic Diplodocus.

Dipsy can teach us quite a few things about balance! When we first installed Dispy in 1975, she was a tail dragging dino as you can see in the photo below. With further studies, they realized that large dinosaurs like the Diplodocus couldn’t possibly walk with their tail on the ground. Think of all the friction and weight! Instead, they realized that they must have used their tail as a counterbalance for their long neck and head like you can see in the illustration below. To demonstrate how Dipsy uses balance, we are going to make a balancing Dipsy!

tail draggin dipsy

Dispy’s early days at HMNS had her dragging her tail on the ground.


Illustration of Dipsy using her tail for balance on our HMNS Overnight shirts.

How to make your own Balancing Dipsy:

1. Print a copy of Dipsy on cardstock


2. Color your Dipsy (mine’s going on vacation, so I’ve got her wearing a festive Hawaiian shirt)

Vacation Dipsy

3. Cut out your Dipsy along the black lines.



4. If you try to balance her now, you may notice that she’s not very good at it. We need to add weight to correct her center of mass.

5. In this case we are going to use paperclips! Add paperclips to Dipsy to get her to balance. Since she is a very large and currently top-heavy dinosaur, we need to add lots of weight down low to keep her balanced. I’ve added three paperclips per foot.


6. If your students would like more of a challenge, have the students adjust the position of the paperclips and watch as her balancing point changes. See if they can get her to balance using different sized paperclips or changing the location of the paperclips. 


The point on which something balances is in line with its center of mass. The object will be most stable (and easier to balance) if the center of mass is below the balancing point instead of above it. For regularly shaped objects like a rectangular sheet of paper the center of mass is the geometric center of the object, but it depends on the shape of the object and how the weight is distributed (imagine adding a bunch of paperclips to one side of an index card and then balancing it horizontally on a pencil eraser – the center of mass and the balancing point will be closer to one edge now).

For our Balancing Dipsy, the object is an unusual shape and has unusual weight distribution. We needed to add weights to our Balancing Dipsy to make her center of mass below where we place our finger when she is upright. With enough weight we can get Dipsy to balance on our finger or a pencil!

Dipsy is just one of many dinosaurs that use their tails to balance. On your next field trip to HMNS, you can see several dinosaurs in the Morian Hall of Paleontology that have their tails sticking out for balance. See if you can find them all! While you’re here, you can bring your own Balancing Dipsy to see our very Dipsy the Diplodocus. She’ll be back this March!

Sharing The Love: HMNS Outreach fan mail shows kids and teachers agree, hands-on science is FUNdamental

Even with a brand new school year just around the corner, students, teachers, and parents alike are still raving about last year’s HMNS Outreach programs. During the 2013-14 school calendar, HMNS Outreach conducted about 500 presentations, helping foster a love of learning and science in thousands of children. But you don’t have to take our word for it; check out these comments, pictures and thank you notes, all from satisfied customers from around the Houston area and beyond!

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The cards, letters, comments, and notes posted below were sent to the Museum following Outreach presentations:

Our ever-popular Outreach programs have gotten some fantastic thank you cards over the years, featuring adorable artwork like the Triceratops below.

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Our programs get kids on the edge of their seats in excitement! It isn’t often real prehistoric fossils come to school…

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“My students thought the fossils were cool. I have one student that is a dinosaur “nut” and he was so excited!” wrote a teacher following a Chevron Earth Science on Wheels program. From dinosaur fossils to shark teeth, this program has something of interest for everybody.


…and the requests to return are endless once we leave!

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HMNS Outreach Programs have been fostering a love of science in children for years…

Outreach IMG 04“All of our students, parents, faculty and staff were highly impressed and appreciative to the docents’ time, knowledge and friendliness” wrote a supervisor following a Docents To Go program. Extensively trained Museum volunteers present on any of eight different topics in our lowest-price Outreach program. 

…for kids of all ages and backgrounds from all over Southeast Texas…

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“I enjoyed the fact that our students were able to see and ‘pet’ the insects. Also, the presenter introduced, treated and spoke about the insects like they were her own pets. She has deep passion for her work and it showed!” wrote a teacher about LyondellBasell Bugs On Wheels. Staff from the renowned Cockrell Butterfly Center will present bugs of all kinds, shapes, and sizes in a program sure to please even the entomophobic!


…leading to even the most unlikely of friendships!

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It’s great when kids think we’re super smart…

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…because that tells us they learned something.

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While we love hearing that kids enjoyed our programs…

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“The response was very enthusiastic. Numerous parents commented that they appreciated having the opportunity to let their children experience something that was both educational and fun,” a teacher wrote about Discovery Dome. The Museum’s most popular outreach program takes viewers on a voyage to outer space, a trip back in time, and more, with shows appealing for all ages.


…we are just as happy to hear that the students enjoyed being taught…

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“I have so many favorites from this presentation! Honestly, I think my teachers and I learned along with the students with this one!” wrote one teacher about our ConocoPhillips Science On Stage show. 2012 Educator of the Year Carolyn Leap leads the way as children and adults alike explore topics in chemistry and physics.


…and even happier to hear that it has spawned a love of science and learning!

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“Please have more programs like this one coming to school. It’s always fascinating for children to see live animals and not just pictures!” wrote a parent to a teacher following a TOTAL Wildlife On Wheels program. From salamanders and snakes to alligators and ferrets, kids get an up close and personal encounter with some of the museum’s exotic animals.


Inspiring children to consider STEM careers? We love that, too.

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And it’s always nice to know the teachers are pleased with us as well.

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“Love them all…you are a standard every year” another teacher wrote. Over 550 programs have already been booked for 2014, and spaces for 2015 and 2016 are already being filled!


The feelings are mutual. Our presenters love teaching and working with kids, and cards like these are why we love our jobs.

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All of the Outreach programs featured above are bookable for visits; we like to say we’re bringing the Museum to you. Bookings are already underway for the 2014-2015 school year, and programs are filling fast, so get in on the action today! For more information, please visit our HMNS Outreach website or send us an email at!