Wanda Hall: Being Natural

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.

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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!”

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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?

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Sam Lam: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sam Lam discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and has since never missed a summer at the museum. She now teaches some of the same summer camps she enjoyed when she was a kid.

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HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SL: I started attending camps at HMNS when I was 6 or 7 years old, around 1998. My mom worked downtown and decided to look into sending us to camp at HMNS. After just one week, I was hooked. From that point on, I kept pestering her to sign me up for Xplorations year after year. 

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HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SL: My favorite class was Wizard Science Academy. Reading Harry Potter was a big part of my childhood, so it was very exciting to be able to attend a summer camp that incorporated science with a Hogwarts twist! I still remember dissecting an owl pellet and being convinced it was from Hedwig. I remember having Nicole Temple as my teacher and being so excited that she secretly let me switch out of the house that the Sorting Hat chose for me into the house of my choice.

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HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SL: I took a camp called, “Thrills, Chills, and Disasters” that talked all about physics and the science behind amusement parks. As an end-of-the-week field trip that wrapped up all our learning, we were able to go to Astroworld to see the physics in action. I loved going around and riding rides with all of my camp friends. It was such a unique opportunity that I am lucky to have had!

HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SL: I would definitely sign up for Bedazzled! I have had the best time teaching that camp for the past few years. I think the best part of Bedazzled is the Spa Day on Friday when campers get to dress as comfortable as they’d like and pamper themselves for the day. A day with magnetic nail polish and a nice, relaxing mud mask? Sign me up! 

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HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SL: When I was a camper, the Xplorations staff was always so enthusiastic and fun to be around. Because of them, I never wanted to leave camp when my mom came to pick me up. I wanted to keep the fun going and stay with them. When I officially “aged-out” of camp, I knew I wanted to come back and make camp a positive experience for others, just like the staff did for me.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SL: During the summers, HMNS has been my second home for as long as I can remember and the people I have met there have become like another family to me. Some of the best friendships I have are with people I have met through Xplorations. Thanks to Xplorations and its amazing staff, I was able to meet and teach with fantastic teachers who inspired me to become a teacher myself. The best part of Xplorations Summer Camp is the people you meet—from the awesome campers, to the fun-loving TA’s and teachers, and the always cheerful and helpful education staff. My best memories from camp are because of them.

Sahil Patel: Legacy Camper

Once in a while, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Xplorations program gives children so much enthusiasm about science that they never really leave the museum. Sahil Patel discovered the museum as a child with the Xplorations program, and moved on to become an Ecoteen as he grew older. Now, he is an HMNS Outreach Presenter and a writer for the BEYONDbones blog.

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Patel teaches a children’s class about the density of various items for the Science Start Outreach Program. Interested in the Houston Museum of Natural Science since age 6, Patel hopes to share his excitement with other kids, cultivating their education through HMNS.

HMNS: When did you start attending summer camp here? And why?

SP: I started attending camp when I was six years old. I didn’t start going to school until Kindergarten, but I would go to work with my mom every day. Every day at lunch time, we would go to either the zoo or the museum, depending on weather, and I was hooked. The real reason I came to camp is probably so my mom could get me out of her office, but I kept coming back because I just never had a bad time. There wasn’t a single class I didn’t enjoy.

HMNS: What was your favorite class? What made it your favorite? Any stories from that class?

SP: Every summer, I had to take the Space Commander class; I must have taken it at least four times. My favorite part was the Expedition Center mission to Mars or the Moon on Friday afternoon. I loved it so much that I had a birthday party mission one year! Every time, I tried to be on a different team inside and was mostly successful. My favorite of those had to be the CIMCOM team, which got to talk to mission control. Years later, when I was a Moran Ecoteen, I got to be a part of mission control for a summer camp mission and loved every second of that, too!

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As an Ecoteen in 2010, Patel interned with Paleontology Curator David Temple.

HMNS: What is your favorite memory from summer camp?

SP: I enjoyed the camps that used to take field trips; one of my favorites was called Thrills and Chills, and the physics-based camp ended with a trip to Astroworld on Friday! Sadly, neither Thrills and Chills nor Astroworld still exist. I also enjoyed the Senior Coastal Ecology class that would take daytrips to Galveston to study wildlife and various aspects of the gulf coast, but this camp was discontinued in the late 2000’s. But I’d say my favorite memory was from when I took Crime Scene Investigators one year. Friday afternoon of Crime Scene Investigators involves a crime scene that the Xplorations staff and Moran Ecoteens set up, and our class went about examining evidence and following clues to try and figure out who committed the crime. Low and behold, it was our TA, who took off out the door and down the hall before he was captured and brought back to the classroom to explain himself.

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HMNS: If you could go back to Xplorations Summer Camp for one week this summer, what class would you take and why?

SP: I’ve taken quite a few of the camps that are still offered today, but one that I didn’t get to that I always wanted to take was Wizard Science Academy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was released on my tenth birthday, and I was obsessed from the opening chorus. The Potter-themed summer camps weren’t created until I was too old to go to camp, and I always felt like I missed out on something amazing. That was confirmed for me when my brother took Wizard Science Academy four years ago and came home with a wand, a broomstick, and a Triwizard Tournament championship.

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As an Ecoteen, Patel was present for the blooming of Lois the Corpse Flower in 2010.

HMNS: What made you decide to come back and work at HMNS?

SP: I guess you could say that I never left. Since I started summer camp at age 6, the only summer I did not work at the museum was when I was 14, because I thought I was ineligible for the Moran Ecoteen Program at that age. HMNS has always held a special place in my heart, from the moment I saw the massive T. rex in the old Glassell Hall. The museum has always made me question what I know, motivated me to learn further, and inspired me to pursue a career in science. Over the years, I fell in love with this place as I learned more and more about it. I got to a point where a summer without HMNS was a summer wasted. I wanted to show others why I was so passionate about this place and what made HMNS so special to me. Coming to work here was a no-brainer.

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With HMNS Outreach, Patel teaches children TEKS-based science skills with the Chevron Earth Science on Wheels: Dinosaur Discovery program.

HMNS: How did the Xplorations Summer Camp influence your life?

SP: Xplorations Summer Camp has had nothing but a positive impact on my life and thousands of others. The museum set me up for success by instilling in me a love of learning at a young age; Xplorations made science fun! With a summer’s worth of learning at camp, I was ready to go when school started up again in August, and I had all kinds of new, useful knowledge to impress my classmates. But most importantly, the summers I spent at Xplorations opened a door for me to a true passion: teaching. Xplorations led me to a career at HMNS. I wouldn’t be here today without it.

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Even hard at work at his desk in the outreach office, scheduling educational programs, Patel has a good time. He can’t imagine working anywhere else.