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!

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.

Ice cream science: Make a cool treat to beat the summer heat

It’s getting to that time of year when it’s so hot and yucky outside that everything cold is better.

It’s also a time for telling kids about how, when you were their age, if you wanted ice cream you had to turn a crank until your arms fell off (presumably while walking uphill to school both ways and fighting off bears…).

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Here in the Houston Museum of Natural Science education department, we have tried making ice cream in a variety of ways to see what is easiest for kids, and not all ways are equal. (Pro tip: Those special ice cream-making balls they sell for kids freeze shut, and then kids are sad. Not recommended.) Our favorite way, at the end of this post, is fairly cheap and easy and fun for kids, but before we get to the instructions, let’s talk about some science.

To make ice cream, you will of course need ice. The ice is simply to lower the temperature of the cream to the freezing point, but if you just used ice alone and let it sit, you’d end up with a solid block of cream – more like an ice cube – and it would take longer to freeze. What makes ice cream special is salt and stirring.

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Water freezes at 32° F, but sprinkling salt on the ice lowers the freezing/melting point of water. How, you say? In order for liquid water to freeze to solid ice, all of the water molecules have to slow down enough to connect to each other and form solid crystals. When this happens, the water loses kinetic energy due to the decrease in movement of those molecules. Because temperature is a measurement of kinetic energy, this results in a lower temperature.

The presence of salt interferes with this process. The water molecules can’t attract each other as easily because they are also attracted to the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Mixing the salt, ice, and water together results in a temperature below the freezing point of water, which helps the cream freeze faster. The shaking or stirring helps cool the cream evenly and efficiently. In ice cream, this lower freezing point turns the fats into solids, but the water content to be almost frozen.

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What about the milk, then? It is much easier to make ice cream with creamer, heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half than to use skim milk because of the higher fat content in cream. You can make ice cream with skim milk, but it is really, really, really hard to do by hand, AND you have already committed to making ice cream, so I feel like you have acknowledged the inherent risk of fat consumption that comes with making a frozen confectionery delight. Just use the full-fat stuff, and let’s all move on.

What does the fat do, anyway? Primarily the higher fat content allows for a richer, creamier texture and a more delicious flavor in your finished product. The reason for this is that when you are cooling and mixing the cream, you are also introducing air molecules to the liquid. The bits of fat in the cream add a little structure to the ice cream and trap these air molecules in the solution as it forms. This, plus the lower freezing temperature, enables you to be able to scoop the ice cream fairly easily because it allows for there to be a bit of unfrozen water in the ice cream, which stops the ice cream from becoming a solid block of ice.

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If you have ever had ice cream that has grown ice crystals and gotten a bit of freezer burn, those ice crystals appeared because the unfrozen water in the ice cream had a chance to migrate a little bit when the ice cream was warmed slightly on the ride home or when it was left on a counter a little too long and then frozen again. There are things called stabilizers added to your ice cream to prevent this from happening. Most ice creams today have one of five stabilizers added to them: carob bean gum* (a type of bean from Africa), carrageenan (a type of algae), guar gum (a type of legume from India), sodium alginate (made from seaweed) or carboxymethyl cellulose (sounds scary but it’s plant-based). Often, if you read the label, you will see more than one of these in your ice cream to keep it smooth and delicious.

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* Carob beans, or locust beans, are cool. They are from exotic African trees and each bean is so similar that at one point they were used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver. We still use this measurement today, but the name has changed over time to Karat.

So now that you have had a little lecture about the science of ice cream, let’s get to the delicious lab work.

 

Activity: ICE CREAM!!!!

Materials:

Individual serving containers of coffee creamer

Ice

Small waterproof container or quality sealable plastic sack big enough for about two or three cups of chipped ice

Salt, any variety

A dish towel to insulate your hands

Optional: Inexhaustible energy of small child-based labor

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Procedure:

  1. Find some liquid coffee creamers in individual pots.
  2. Put ice in your water proof container, filling it about a third of the way. Smaller chunks of ice work better because there is more surface area, but any ice will do.
  3. Layer your salt on your ice. Several solid sprinkles will do, but if you are nervous about the quantity, add some extra just in case. It won’t hurt anything.
  4. Put your sealed creamer cup(s) in your container and then put more ice in, filling it about 2/3 of the way.
  5. Layer on more salt.
  6. Finish filling the container with ice.
  7. Start shaking your container. Make sure it is well sealed and that you have a firm grip on it. No one wants to be injured in an ice cream-related accident. There is no way to spin that so it sounds cool. Also, this is an excellent job for kids to help with. Put on a nice, long song or two and let them wiggle till they drop. About ten minutes will do it, but you will know when you are getting close because a frost will form on the outside of your container. If you don’t feel frost forming after a couple of minutes, add more salt. To speed this process up, start with creamer pods that have been stored in the fridge. This way, your creamer will start at about 50° F, and you won’t have to work so hard.
  8. After about 10 minutes of shake, shake, shaking your ice cream, dig your creamer cup out of the ice and wipe it off.
  9. Ta dah! You are done. Unless you want to make this tablespoon of delicious homemade ice cream into a sundae and add chocolate and banana or some jelly for more flavor.

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Note: If you are thinking to yourself, “That seems like a lot of work for a tablespoon of ice cream,” well… it is. But it’s also science. So there.

If you get the liquid creamer that comes in a larger container at the grocery store, you can increase the volume of your creamer and make MORE ice cream. If you choose to do this, you will need to find a small waterproof (and I would suggest plastic) container to pour the creamer into and then a slightly larger waterproof container for all the ice and the salt. It’s the same procedure, just with a larger amount of the ingredients!

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Take It: HMNS shopping trips rival Liam Neeson’s shakedown

May is upon us, which means it is time for stocking up on mosquito repellent and sunscreen, flip flops and floppy hats, bathing suits and beach towels. For the education staff at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, it also meanstake it heavy lifting and preparing for the emotional gauntlet that is summer camp shopping. Julia does the bulk of the mass ordering, but there are some things we just have to go to a brick-and-mortar store to get. So off to the store we go! Usually three or four hours at a time.

Generally, when we get to the store we take it. We take it all. Just like Liam Neeson.

The most common quantity on a shopping list is “all of them.”shopping list

We are like a plague of locusts, actively demolishing orderly displays of stock, leaving only a husk behind. If you are the unfortunate person who comes behind us looking for just one single solitary bottle of green food coloring, I’m sorry. Because I took them all.

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Inventory before HMNS hits…

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…and after.

On this particular trip, we start in what we affectionately refer to as, “bathroom.”  This is all the stuff that you might keep in your medicine cabinet, make-up drawer or shower. It’s a fairly small section in our shopping adventures, but it almost fills a basket by itself. “Bathroom” is a weird mixture of heavy items and small items. They have a tendency to sneak out through the holes in the bottom of the basket if you aren’t keeping an eye on them.

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We need all the cotton balls!

That white box? It’s an entire container of cotton balls. Why? Because we need them all.

After about an hour, in which Julia and I cover “bathroom,” “appliances,” and “party” (and I’d like to point out that it’s always a party in our department), we take a short break and check the list before heading to “craft” and “office.” There is no lunch break until the basket is full. Once we reach the point of having to carefully place items so they won’t fall out of the basket, trailing behind us like breadcrumbs, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch.

With special permission from Josh, the assistant manager, and promises from the clerks that no one will try to put our treasures away, we drop our first basket near the front and head for a quick “strategy meeting” (which is actually code for lunch), which allows Julia to double-check the list. Again. For the fourth time.

“I don’t know who you are.  I don’t know what you want. But if you are looking for Raisinets, I can tell you they don’t have any.”

Our summer camp uniform shirts are navy blue. This also happens to be the uniform shirt color for employees at one of our frequented summer camp shopping spots. This coincidence combined with the fact that our shopping basket is always filled with nonsense, and plenty of it, ensures that we will be confused with store employees at least once during any excursion. I have discovered that it is often easier for everyone if I can just tell the confused shopper where the item they are looking for is located. Due to the fact that we often need so very many weird things of specific shapes and sizes, I can almost always tell them if the store has it in stock and where to find it.

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When customers come up to me asking where they can find an item, I just tell them; I know where almost all of it is, anyway.

On this trip, we are asked twice to lend a helping hand. The first time, it’s a guy looking for reading glasses (usually across from the pharmacy window), and the second is a corporate stocker looking for her product placement (Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids – on the bottom shelf next to gum). We have been asked to locate anything and everything including, but not limited to, powdered sugar, colored ping pong balls, decorative masking tape, Abuelita chocolate, and picture-hanging supplies. (In this particular instance I recommend 3M Velcro strips, at the very end of the hardware aisle.)

My favorite case of mistaken identity happens while shopping with Sahil. He and I have spent many a summer’s day at the store shopping for 12-inch yellow balloons (with birthday party supplies) and Cheez Whiz (usually in the cold cheese section, which is weird because it doesn’t actually need to be refrigerated). Usually when shopping, we make a list by section – garage, craft, clothing, etc. – and then divide and conquer with one of us on aisle 10 and the other on aisle 11. Because Sahil is so very nice and polite, I have come around the corner more than once, turning slowly because my basket is so full, and see him helping a customer reach an item on the top shelf or discussing the merits of the three coolers in front of them.

On one particular occasion, we’re short on time, so Sahil‘s concentrating on the list in front of him, determining what we have left to find, when a customer comes up and asks him for the location of the honey, which stumps him. Honey isn’t something we’ve purchased before, so Sahil politely tells the customer that he doesn’t actually know where the honey is located. He apologizes and goes back to his list. The customer insists he help her, but he again tells her he doesn’t know where the honey is. He suggests it might be in the breakfast aisle, maybe with syrup, and again goes back to his list. The customer, feeling she’s been ignored, reports him to the store manager who then comes to chew Sahil out, the “unhelpful store employee.”

Oh, summer camp

“But what I do have is a very particular set of skills… Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare to people like you.”

dr mariotetrisWhen I was a child, my mom and dad purchased Nintendo Game Boys for my brother and I from a neighbor at a garage sale. I had two games I played regularly, Dr. Mario and Tetris. I was super good at both. We weren’t allowed to play our Game Boys a lot, but they were encouraged on road trips. I would play one of those two games for miles and miles, laying on the floorboard in the back of the sedan so my older brother could have the bench seat. Despite what my mom said, playing these games did not rot my brains out, though I do remember on more than one occasion, at the end of a long day of driving, dreaming of dropping pills and “tetrominoes.”

What seemed a pointless game for children has turned into a useful and particular skill as an adult.

I don’t love shopping. Never have. This combined with my Type A personality traits and the fact that shopping carts can only hold so much means that I have turned camp shopping into a game of sorts: Tetris – Museum Edition.

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Tetris: Museum Edition

When filling a cart, one should start with heavy and square items on the bottom, filling the gaps as the occasion arises. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, leaves just enough of a gap in the basket that you can tuck in your petroleum jelly to fill the space. When you have established a base layer, it’s time to start building side walls. These are the ramparts, allowing you to generate volume in the basket without an avalanche of Q-tips. Finally, top off your basket with bags of things to cement all the layers together. Generally, heavy bags work best, such as bags of candy, but use what you can. Once your basket can’t safely hold another item, it’s time to head to the check-out.

I’d just like to apologize to any check-out clerk that has ever helped me during summer camp shopping. They see us coming, with our two or three carts packed to the rafters, and the audible sigh can be heard three lanes over. We try not to be too irritating, but we know we are. The standard speech to the clerk goes something like this, “Hello (insert name here). We are making a tax-exempt purchase today. Whenever possible, we will put like items together for ease of counting. My colleague has gone to get an empty basket to help you out.”

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Car Tetris…

Inevitably when we check out, we end up with way more output than we had input due to my mad Tetris skills. On this particular trip, we have a one-to-two ratio of pre-check out baskets to post-checkout baskets, which I kind of consider a failure on my part. I think I could’ve done better. In my defense, this is just the first shopping trip of the season, and I haven’t stretched.

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…showing my particular set of skills.

Next comes car Tetris, where you take all of your goodies out to your vehicle of choice and build a mountain of things. As with the cart, you must start with the square and heavy items, then slowly build up to the items that can be crushed or smashed. On more than one occasion, I set my heights a little too high and have to pack stuff around my shopping companion. Today, the four baskets of treasure fit quite nicely into Julia’s back seat.  According to Julia’s Instagram, #wehadmoreroom.

The final stretch of any shopping trip is reverse Tetris, where the supply vehicle is met at the loading dock by all the worker bees, and we unload and sort the treasure. Depending on the trip, this could go a number of ways. We could sort by camp requests, by storage area, by weight, by refrigeration needs, and so on. Today’s trip?  We sort by storage location because, starting next week, we have INTERNS coming and we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to figure out where all this stuff goes!

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Reverse Tetris begins…

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…and game over. Now time to let the interns sort it out.

“If you have a case of glow-in-the-dark paint in the back, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you. I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you and I will bother you repeatedly.”

One of the trickier parts of camp shopping is when we need it, we need it now. If the store is out of stock, you go to another store. If that store doesn’t have it, you try at another place. On the hard-to-find items, we try to buy ahead or find a place we can order them, but that doesn’t always work, particularly if we are looking for a specific item for a specific purpose. Occasionally, even when there is a source for an item, we will run short and it becomes an emergency thereby causing us to hoard said item for years. I remember with dismay the Button Magnet Shortage of 2010 and the Silver Tinsel Crisis of 2008. Those were dark times… Dark times indeed.

Because there is a limited amount of time and a limited number of places, we have learned to be persistent. We ask questions. We know you have it in stock in the back… Please go look… And the poor clerk that runs into our brand of crazy, usually doesn’t understand our request.

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HMNS camp shopping isn’t for the faint of heart.

“How many do you want?”

All of them.

“But there’s like 50.”

Yes. All of them.

This style of shopping takes a minute to get used to and isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of muscle. And, once the summer has ended, you have to transition back to your normal life. Sahil, former shopping partner and current Outreach presenter, has fallen victim to this trap more than once. While at the store with his mom shopping for a big family dinner, he was sent off to get enough refried beans to feed 12 people. He returned with 12 cans.  His mother was not amused.

Our persistence usually pays off and, at the end of the day, we return victorious with the last carnivorous plant in town (or whatever the item might be).