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!

With Soil, Make Me Wine: The Dirt on Growing Great Grapes

I like wine. And I make my own. Not huge batches, mind you. Just about 30 bottles per month in the winter months. I learned the hard way the chemistry of wine. If you let the wine get too hot while it’s fermenting, it can radically alter the taste.  I let one of my batches get above 95 degrees a few times this summer. I was making a port and the flavor was ruined. The entire batch came out tasting like welches grape juice. Flat, tasteless, 20 percent alcohol-by-volume grape juice. I only inflicted a few bottles on my friends.

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Good wine is a combination of science and art. There is the botany of the grapes. The meteorology of the climate. And the pedology. What’s pedology you ask? It’s the study of soil.  And since it is the International Year of Soils, we are going to get down and dirty with the effect of soil on one of my favorite drinks.

The ground beneath us is incredibly active. There are millions of different types of bacteria, fungi, and arthropods that give dirt everywhere its characteristics. If you’ve been taking the museum’s class on gardening and landscaping, you’ll understand the importance of the health of soil for plants. To briefly sum it up, good soil makes good crops. A shocking concept. But beyond that, what effects can the soil have on wine?

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The effect of soil and climate on wine is called terroir. Wine tasters with a good palates say they can discern the flavor of the soil in the wine. Scientists have begun to examine a comparison of terroir to wines in an attempt to explain this phenomenon but so far have not been able to. That doesn’t mean that the flavor of the soil isn’t in the wine; it just means more scientists will have to drink more good wines. That’s a study I want to be a part of!

Good soils will encourage the vines to produce grapes instead of growing more vine. So the best soils need to provide lots of water at just the right time and then be able to drain it away. And the soil needs to keep the right nutrients such as nitrogen and potassium available to the vine, which can help intensify the flavors in the grape.

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Tasting wine is about more than just “good” or “bad.” With an entire family of varietals out there in the world, it’s about what gives the wine its identity. Fans of wine, like me, like to get closer to the wine and the wine-making process through the quality of its flavor. And, oddly enough, tasting isn’t just about the taste. Wine Folly offers a five-step process to tasting wine, and explains a few things to be aware of. Here’s the basic process outlined in their blog.

  1. Look at the color. This goes deeper than just red and white. Ask yourself how it compares to other reds or whites in color. Gauge whether you can see through it. With practice, you can gauge whether the wine is bold, rich or viscous.
  2. Smell the wine, but swirl it around first to aerate it. Put the wine on the table and move the base in little circles, then shove your nose into the glass and take a big whiff. What do you smell?
  3. Taste the wine. Get enough of the wine to coat your entire tongue and roll it around in your mouth to maximize contact with all your taste buds. Don’t just think about flavor; think about texture and body, how it feels in your mouth. Does it have an alcoholic burn? Do the flavors match the smell?
  4. Decide whether to spit or swallow. You may have to drive later, or you may have 20 wines to taste and want to stay sober enough to think about all of them. If you hate the wine, spit it out. If you don’t want to waste it, swallow it. There’s no right or wrong choice.
  5. Think about the wine and formulate your own conclusions. Wine Folly states, “Wine tasting is a head game. Confidence and bold assertion can often make someone look like a pro.”

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Join us for a Periscope wine tasting with local experts, curators, and myself on Wednesday, November 18 at 3 p.m. You’ll see some live wine tasting where we’ll talk about terroir and suggest some wine pairings for Thanksgiving. And to celebrate the International Year of Soils, join us for a film screening of the Symphony of the Soil at the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre Dec. 1 at 6 p.m.

World-famous paleontologist Dr. Robert T. Bakker shares the truth about T. rex

No one knows everything, you tell yourself, but after a conversation with Dr. Robert T. Bakker, Curator for the Morian Hall of Paleontology, you might believe there’s someone out there who does.

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The world-renowned dinosaur expert is famous for his energetic and entertaining style, and imagining not only the shape and size and habits of creatures extinct for millions of years, but the entire ecosystems in which they lived. Using his imagination to peer through deep time, Bakker sees things other paleontologists wouldn’t — because he chooses to think “outside the box.” This week, he returns to the Houston Museum of Natural Science for three exciting events, sharing his wealth of knowledge on dinosaurs, natural history and geology.

Bakker arrived at HMNS Tuesday morning and hosted the premier of the NOVA science television event Making North America in the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre. The show airs on PBS this November.

Wednesday night, he hosts his own lecture titled T. rex — The Shocking Truth at 6:30 p.m., also in the Wortham. Bakker says the presentation will raise an eyebrow about the common reputation of the famous Cretaceous carnivore Tyrannosaurus rex.

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“For example, if you time travel, and it’s at night, and you’re just sitting there watching critters, you hear that the best thing to do is to just sit still,” Bakker said. “That’s what we learn from Jurassic Park. That’s just the wrong answer. T. rex will find you instantly, and all your friends, and the driver of the time-traveling minibus.”

T. rex was a “triple threat,” according to Bakker, with strong vision, hearing and smell, and it was a fast runner. As the apex predator of its time, it was an extremely successful hunter. But that’s not all it was good at. Turns out it was a gentle creature, too.

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Parent T. rexes showing affection. Illustration: Luis V. Rey.

“The T. rex made excellent parents,” Bakker said. “They were excellent partners, both male and female. If you want to choose really doting, effective, feeling, good role-model parents… be a T. rex.

If you’d like to know how Bakker determined this, you’ll have to come to the lecture, he said.

In spite of his love for the T. rex, a species that piques the imaginations of children and adults across the world along with the animal’s arch-nemesis, Triceratops, Bakker’s favorite dinosaur is and always has been Ceratosaurus.

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T. rex battling Triceratops… and losing. Illustration: Luis V. Rey.

“It’s smaller, built lower to the ground, had a muscular tail great for swimming, very sharp, knifelike teeth and a horn on its nose,” Bakker said. “In fourth grade, I saw it in a book called The Fossil Book. And I took a shining to Ceratosaurus. The next year, my parents took us on a trip to Washington, D.C.”

In Washington, Bakker saw the fossil for the first time and was amazed.

“That will change your theology when you’re in the fourth grade in New Jersey,” he said.

The dinosaur is rare and the flexibility of its body and shortness of its legs suggest it probably was best suited to leafing through dense forest and marshland to hunt. The rare dinosaur was found with fish and turtles nearby, likely its primary diet, which would explain the tail suited for swimming, Bakker said.

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T. rex squaring off with a competitor, using a head-bump as a fighting technique.

While his experience meeting Ceratosaurus affected him deeply, Bakker wasn’t interested in dinosaurs until he read a 1953 Life Magazine feature on paleontology written by Lincoln Barnett that spanned the entire issue, he said.

“It was arguably the most beautifully-written feature article ever written,” Bakker said. “It was this gorgeous safari through time, starting with the tiny microbes of the Cambrian, Brontosaurus, Stegosaurus, the Texas Permian red beds, mammoths. … It wasn’t weird prehistoric monsters. The reader asks how and why did these things evolve? … Things were related. The history of life made sense. And I announced to my startled parents that having read Life Magazine, I’m going to grow up and dig fossils.”

His parents continued to believe his affinity for paleontology was just a passing phase, Bakker said, up until the publication of his first book.

“By gum, they read it, and they finally got it,” Bakker said. “Dinosaurs are a part of the history of life on Earth, not a random monster parade.”

Meet Bakker in person at his lecture Wednesday, Nov. 4. and also this Saturday, Nov. 7 at the HMNS Dino Days event Breakfast with Dr. Bakker. Beginning at 9 a.m. on the Morian Overlook and moving downstairs into the Moran Lecture Hall, children and adults can have a meal with Bakker, share ideas about paleontology, listen to a presentation and have a blast doing a variety of dino activities.

Saturday is STEM/Nova Day for Scouts at HMNS!

Hey, Scouts! Spend the day at HMNS this weekend and work on earning your Nova Award during STEM/Nova Day! The Houston Museum of Natural Science is the perfect place to complete your badge requirements. Visit our permanent exhibit halls, watch a Burke Baker Planetarium or Wortham Giant Screen Theatre movie, and ask some of our docents your best science questions!

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Cubs and Webelos can work on their requirements for the “Science Everywhere” or the “Down and Dirty” Nova Awards. Watch one of our films about geology, oceanography, or weather, and explore permanent exhibit halls like the Weiss Hall of Energy and the Morian Hall of Paleontology. Wolf Scouts can sign up for Digging in the Past, and Webelos can choose from Adventures in Science, or Earth Rocks! classes. Bear Scouts can take one of our fall classes to finish their Nova Award requirements. We’ll also have Investigation Stations in the Alfred C. Glassell, Jr. Hall (under the fish) so you can explore different scientific topics through hands-on activities!

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Boy Scouts will also be able to fulfill some of their “Shoot!” Nova Award requirements. Visit the Burke Baker Planetarium or Wortham Giant Screen Theatre to watch a movie about weather, astronomy, or space technology. Stop by some of the Investigation Stations to participate in hands-on activities involving physics and engineering. (Please note that Boy Scouts will be unable to fulfill every requirement for the “Shoot!” Nova Award at this event.)

STEM/Nova Day will be from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 26. If you are taking a class to complete any Nova requirements, classes will run from 1 to 3 p.m. Scouts can also get field trip rates for the Burke Baker Planetarium and Wortham Giant Screen Theatre shows that day. Participation in STEM/Nova Day requires admission to the permanent exhibit halls. Become a member and get free admission to the permanent exhibit halls year-round!

We look forward to seeing scouts at the STEM/Nova Day at HMNS!