Being Natural: Michelle Connor

She’s been a Girl Scout, a troop leader, a cookie mom, and now she’s ready to go even further. Michelle Connor is excited and ready to be the next Scout Programs Manager at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Good 4

Connor brings to the program an insider’s perspective on scouting with extensive experience working with HMNS Education Programs. Moving forward, Connor would like to inject fun, educational programming into classes that meet badge requirements for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

She has plenty of experience making classes exciting. Connor was a fifth-grade teacher before retiring, teaching a wide variety of subjects but specializing in science.

“I was always trying to find a way to bring it to life for the kids,” Connor said. “[The school] didn’t have the equipment they needed, so I bought the equipment I needed for my classroom. I was always trying to find a way to teach the lesson with a hands-on activity.”

At her own expense, Connor would purchase owl pellets for students to explore following testing. She introduced herself to kids while holding a piece of coprolite. As Connor put it, “they learned I was the fun, crazy science teacher.”

Connor got her start at HMNS as a volunteer after a butterfly gardening class with then-Greenhouse Manager Ory Roberts back in 2007. Connor always loved plants; her degree is in Floriculture, so this was as good a place to start as any. Throughout the class, Roberts talked about how helpful her volunteers were, and at the end, Connor asked how she could begin to volunteer.

Good 6

Connor loves many aspects of HMNS, including the Cockrell Butterfly Center and the live inhabitants of the Brown Hall of Entomology, like the giant prickly stick she is holding here.

“[Roberts] jokingly told me, ‘Show up on Monday!’” Connor said. “So I did!”

After successful stints volunteering in the greenhouse and in special exhibits such as Frogs! A Chorus of Colors, Connor was in love. She was even voted President of the HMNS Volunteer Guild in 2013.

Connor would spend nine months of the year volunteering and three months teaching for Xplorations summer camps. Hundreds of kids would enter Hogwarts each summer with Connor leading the way in Wizard Science Academy, a Harry Potter-inspired science camp. She learned firsthand the high standard HMNS holds for its educational programming, and she earned a reputation among staff as the kind of person who sees a problem and fixes it.

Connor stood out as an applicant for the Scout Programs Director position in part due to her extensive background working with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Connor was a Girl Scout herself. She still has her old sash!

“I loved being a Girl Scout!” Connor said. “Girl Scouts was always encouraging, always made you want to learn more, to have you step out of the box, build friendships. Those joys are what encouraged [my husband and I] to put our own kids in Scouts.”

Good 3

Connor completed the Wood Badge program through the Boy Scouts of America while her son was a Boy Scout. “Go Buffaloes!” she proudly proclaimed.

Connor and her husband Jim have a son and a daughter, both of whom were Scouts themselves. Michelle held a wide variety of roles in her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, from cookie mom and assistant leader to gold award counselor and troop leader. While Jim was the den leader for their son’s troop, Michelle was heavily involved in summer day camps for Cub Scouts and was assistant scoutmaster when their son graduated to Boy Scouts. She went through the full Wood Badge training herself.

“My daughter earned a gold award, and my son is [now] an Eagle Scout. Obviously, I believe in scouting,” Connor said. “I remember my son doing a merit badge [at HMNS] and loving it. I want to get that ‘awe-ness’ back into this program that I saw and that my son experienced.”

Connor is slowly but surely reshaping Scouts@HMNS; she taught scout classes this summer and felt that changes needed to be made. She is beginning by rewriting all merit badge classes to introduce more interactive activities to make classes more engaging and fun. These classes will go beyond checking a box to indicate a requirement has been met. Connor wants to get past the “what” of each requirement and delve into the “why” and “how.” Even adding a component as simple as group discussion helps a lot.

“Each merit badge is educational,” Connor said. “You enhance it; if need be you add to it, to explain what the requirement is… I want there to be a spark in even the most serious of merit badges. You’ve got to make something so that the kids are enjoying it. If they enjoy something, they’re learning it.”

Good 1

Connor is rewriting badge classes to better utilize the resources that HMNS presents, making them more enjoyable for Scouts and parents alike.

In addition, the program is growing to cover more scouts than ever before. This spring, Scouts@HMNS is debuting 12 new badge classes specifically for Brownies, Juniors and Cadettes, 15 new Adventure classes for Cub Scouts, and two new Boy Scouts Merit Badge classes. All in all, there are 62 different classes for families to choose from, and Connor is working on making all of them exciting and enjoyable for all.

In the end, Connor is motivated more than anything by the character she saw built in her kids through scouting. She is looking forward to helping more youth in the Houston area grow with scouting and HMNS.

“As a teacher and a parent, scouting teaches kids values and how to be a good citizen. Saying ‘ma’am’ and ‘sir’ goes a long way,” Connor said. “Scouting gives values at a young age that they follow throughout their lives. It doesn’t matter if you’re a boy or girl, it gives you those values. You learn friendship, you learn how to take care of yourself, you learn how to become independent, and we need more of that in kids today.”

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.

Sahil1

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.

blood-1237550

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!

Sahil2

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!

Being Natural: Wanda Hall

The first things all visitors to the Houston Museum of Natural Science see are an 8,000-pound amethyst geode from Uruguay in the lobby and the smiling face of Wanda Hall. And she wouldn’t want it any other way.

Wanda 2

Security guard Wanda Hall can be found in the lobby between the parking garage and the gift shop, greeting guests with her wide smile. Hall became the front line security guard in July 2014.

Hall has been with HMNS for three years, joining the security staff in 2012 right after the opening of the Dan L. Duncan Family Wing. She began by patrolling the brand new Morian Hall of Paleontology, the special exhibition Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition during its time with us, and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, before moving to her current post at the parking garage lobby July 15, 2014.

Hall relishes her job and the opportunity to speak with every guest that visits the museum. Even during our interview, she occasionally paused to greet parents and children entering for Xplorations summer camp.

“[If] you smile at people, they’re going to smile back,” Hall said. “You can’t help but smile at people.”

Hall grew up in Smithville, TX, about 45 miles southeast of Austin on State Highway 71. At the age of 22, she followed in her brother’s footsteps and traded in the town of 3,927 people for Houston, a city of 2.2 million.

Before finding her way to the museum, Hall spent 29 years working as a social worker for the State of Texas, helping seniors and disabled citizens with Medicaid eligibility. She spent eight years retired, enjoying working out and tending her garden, which includes a lemon tree and a pineapple plant.

This love of nature and plants has made the Cockrell Butterfly Center Hall’s favorite place in the museum. She used to spend her breaks in there, roaming around among the flora and floating butterflies—that is, until she learned of the two green tree pythons living in the conservatory next to the handicap entrance.

“I like the butterflies, the plants, everything. But I’m still afraid,” Hall said. “I haven’t been in there in a while. They said, ‘didn’t you see the snakes behind the glass?’ Ever since they told me that, I haven’t been back in there!”

Wanda 1

Hall sits at her typical post, located right next to the gift shop steps. Even while posing for photos, she continued to greet and assist visitors to the Museum!

Ophidiophobia aside, Hall really enjoys working at the Museum. A true people person, her infectious smile and laughter are great for welcoming visitors to HMNS. She loves interacting with the patrons, and they frequently reciprocate.

“Last year around camp time, this little girl came up to me and said, ‘When I come around the corner, there’s something about you. You’ll smile at me. You make my day.’ That was so sweet,” Hall said.

“I meet a lot of people,” Hall continued. “A lot of people want to sit and talk as they come through. They’ll be gone a few minutes and then they’ll come back and talk. People can be glad to see me, and I’ll be glad to see them. I like working in the front. I don’t think I want to come back inside!”

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is open seven days a week, and Hall will be there to greet visitors Monday through Friday. For those planning to visit on August 14, be sure to wish her a happy birthday!

Air, sharks, and robots: Copywriter Jason goes to summer camp

What do you get when you throw a 30-year-old copywriter into a summer camp classroom full of 10-year-olds?

camp9

Sticking out like an aqua-colored sore thumb in Karen Culbertson’s “Leonardo’s Workshop” class at Xplorations Summer Camp. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

A lot of weird looks and kids asking, “Miss, does he actually think he’s 10 years old? Is that why he’s here?”

That, and an aqua T-shirt.

Since Xplorations Summer Camp is in its final swing at the end of this summer (only two weeks left after this one!), I decided it was time I looked into what those brilliant teachers are showing all our curious campers. VP of Youth Education Nicole Temple placed me in a class for a day as sort of an “undercover reporter,” but the kids weren’t buying it. Maybe it’s because I’m six feet tall or have a beard. And here I was starting to believe those people who said I look young for my age. Guess good skin will only take you so far.

In the “Leonardo’s Workshop” summer camp, I studied with a class of about 25 students, delving into the mechanics of pressure under the tutelage of Karen Culbertson. We learned about pneumatics, the science behind the reason tires inflate to support tons of machinery, and hydraulics, using water to drive moving parts. A bad student since way back, I arrived late to class. Camp starts at 10 a.m., and I was there around 10:45. I missed the lecture about the work of Leonardo da Vinci (the Renaissance mind responsible for strange flying machines, paintings, sculpture, and the Vitruvian Man), but I was just in time to join the class in making a few hypotheses about our first science experiment.

camp10

Working together in groups to share ideas is a big part of learning at camp, and part of the fun. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill  

After finding the nearest empty seat and awkwardly introducing myself to my table, my group partners caught me up on what I’d missed. The day prior, they made a glider, which seems easy enough, but the challenge was they weren’t allowed to throw it. They could only drop it off a ledge, and it was supposed to soar on its own.

I expressed my doubts. “No way! Really? That sounds impossible.”

“It wasn’t that hard,” the kid across from me said with a confident shrug.

I felt intimidated. They already thought I was dumb for being a student in a class someone my age should be teaching. Could I pull this off? Would I get in trouble if I didn’t perform?

I decided to mind my P’s and Q’s and pay attention, taking careful notes. Ms. Culbertson taught us that pneumatics (careful on the spelling) is the science that deals with compressed air.

“Do you ever wonder how a tire holds up a car?”

Come to think of it, I did.

“Do you think it’s the rubber or the air that supports the weight?”

I hesitated to answer, fearful that I’d look stupid, and let the class give the correct response. “It’s the air!”

“Good. Now we’re going to see how it works.”

Ms. Culbertson’s helpers gave us straws, masking tape, and a gallon-sized plastic freezer bag. We were told to tape the bag shut with the straw inside, and she encouraged us to get creative with solving the problem of preventing any leaks. I thought it would be clever to tape the straw in one corner of the zipper closure to minimize leaks, but it didn’t work. (Here’s a tip: even when the zipper is closed and the tape surrounds the straw, the air can still leak out if you don’t seal the lip.) So I taped the whole thing shut. I saw the other kids following my example, and then I started to feel cool, like an accepted part of the group.

When our bags were sealed, Ms. Culbertson had us stack our notebooks on top of them and witness the power of an inflated chamber. We found we could lift several pounds of weight with just a flexible piece of clear plastic supported with air pressure. Pretty darn cool to see pneumatics in action!

camp2

One of my camp buddies and I watched how marine biologists tag great white sharks with GPS trackers. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After the experiment, we headed out of the classroom on a field trip to the Shark! exhibit, where we got wet touching live bamboo and epaulette sharks. (Here’s another tip: use only two fingers and don’t grab the sharks. You can hurt them or get hurt yourself, and the marine biologists will yell at you. This didn’t happen to me; I’m just saying…) When you run your fingers from nose to tail, the sharks’ skins are smooth, but from tail to tip, it’s like sandpaper. Ms. Culbertson explained that the reason for the rough skin is to make the sharks more “aerodynamic,” a lot like the gliders her class made the day before, but in water. Their skin and torpedo shape makes sharks some of the best swimmers in the ocean.

camp5

The docile bamboo sharks in the Shark! Touch Tank Experience exhibit feel smooth or like sandpaper, depending on which direction you pet them. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

We stayed in the exhibit and watched some footage of field biologists tagging great whites, compared the jaws of a modern shark to the giant maw of the extinct megalodon, and learned that sharks aren’t as dangerous as they seem. Even though attacks can sometimes be grisly, they don’t happen often, and it’s pretty rare to die from a shark bite. Sharks would rather eat fish than people. To them, we taste gross. Info on text panels told the tragic story of finning, which is killing millions of sharks a year, driving them toward the endangered species list.

camp4

Information on text panels explained the plight of the great white shark, being driven to an endangered species by the global finning industry. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

After a 45-minute lunch watching the Magic School Bus and chatting with some college-level facilitators closer to my own age (the one time I broke character), we returned to the classroom for the highlight of my adventure as a camper. By then I had made some friends.

camp8

A wooden hydraulic arm gave us something to aspire to in our engineering science experiment. Syringes filled with water and food coloring drive its moving parts. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

With pneumatics behind us, Ms. Culbertson turned the class to hydraulics. Her assistants gave us each a length of surgical tubing and two syringes (without the needles, of course). We submerged all the elements in a bucket of water and assembled them, one syringe plunger-down and the other plunger-up. If you do it right, when you take it out of the water, you can press one plunger down and the hydraulic pressure forces the other plunger up. It was the basic mechanical element that allowed us to build a robotic arm.

camp11

The basic hydraulic arm we assembled was much simpler, but no less cool. Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

Ms. Culbertson showed us a fancy wooden arm build from a kit to give us inspiration. Four syringes powered it, and depending on which assembly you activated, it would grip, descend, move side to side or bend its “wrist.” There was no way any of us could have made something like that without a set of instructions, but the demonstration gave us enough ideas to build a basic hinge out of cardboard cut-outs and duct tape.

Using the same parts, each of us came up with a different model. One camper made what I named a “waving machine,” attaching a hand-shaped cutout to the end of his arm, while I and another student taped a green marker to the end of my hydraulic “arm” to make a sort of writing machine. Many other designs proved that the imagination is limitless. Some were successful, while others needed work, but with da Vinci’s lessons of constant innovation in mind, Ms. Culbertson pushed everyone to keep trying to improve their designs.

By then, it was 2 p.m. and time for me to go back to work in my boring old office cubicle. Back to adult life. Still, as I shared the adventure with several of my co-workers, it was difficult not to feel child-like excitement.

camp6

Wild about sharks at summer camp. We all had a blast! Photo by: Mary Martha Meyer-Hill

There’s only two weeks left to register for Xplorations Summer Camp at HMNS. If I learned something, made friends, and had fun, any kid will! With many other exciting themes to choose from like Crime Scene Investigators, Star Warrior’s Academy, Mummies and Mysteries, and Dino Claws and Shark Jaws, there’s tons of stuff to learn about and experiments to do.

Shoot. Come to think of it, maybe I’ll go back myself.