By De Castillo, Contributor
Whether looking for a field trip or family outing in Houston or just something to do while in town, the Houston Museum of Natural Science is one place you’ll want to check out. Time will definitely get away from visitors who get wrapped up in the exhibits and planetarium. Luckily, the museum has a McDonalds inside, and there are several great restaurants within walking distance or requiring only a short drive. Wherever you plan to take your lunch break, you’ll want to keep it short to ensure you have time to take advantage of all the museum has to offer. Separated into three major sections (the museum, the Burke Baker Planetarium, and the Wortham Giant Screen Theater), admissions to each can be purchased separately; however all are well worth the cost and together make an even more memorable experience.
Permanent exhibits in the museum
The museum consists of several permanent exhibits with many different educational focuses. Natural science topics range from animal science and paleontology to energy and technology.
For those interested in animal science, the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife illustrates native biomes and the ecological roles of native species and presents vanishing, extinct, and invasive species in Texas along with the human factors impacting each. The Hall of African Wildlife also presents an in-depth look at the ecology and conservation of African wildlife. More narrowly focused exhibits on Peruvian game fish and mollusks as well as the Butterfly Center help to provide a well-rounded nature study.
Morian Hall of Paleontology features a display with skeletons of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals positioned in active poses, appearing to be engaged in the predator vs. prey struggle for survival. Also featured is a display highlighting stages of human evolution.
The Welch Hall of Chemistry offers interactive exhibits exploring nearly every aspect of chemistry with manipulative displays focusing on topics from molecular structure to applications of chemistry in anatomy and physiology and technological developments. This is a real treat because most museums spend little time on chemistry, but you’ll find a nice layout in Houston.
More focused on geological topics are the Earth Forum, the Cullen Hall of Gems, and the Smith Gem Vault. With computer workstations on which to conduct controlled, preset experiments in the Earth Forum, visitors take a hands-on approach to studying weather, climate, population patterns, and other geological features and systems. The gem displays offer a breathtaking glimpse of the results of geological processes presented in the Earth Forum.
Social and ancient technological sciences are also represented in the Hall of Ancient Egypt and the Hall of the Americas. Exhibits highlight lifestyles, technology, and customs of both cultures, as well as providing interesting information regarding traditional and emerging archaeological methodology and the use of developing technology in modern archaeologic endeavors.
Perhaps the most impressive of the museum’s offerings is the highly interactive collection of exhibits within the Weiss Energy Hall. Holographic displays, touch screen presentations, and exhibits utilizing virtual reality equipment are among the media used to deliver an overwhelming pool of information about the interconnected disciplines spanning the study and science of energy. From human metabolism to fossil fuels and alternative energy sources, this section could require a good portion of a daylong visit to complete. Areas of study are broken down into their individual subsections (geology, geography, and industry) with an exhaustive exploration into each.
Burke Barker Planetarium
Opened in 1964, the Burke Baker Planetarium has been a fixture in Houston for 50 years. It continuously draws audiences of all ages and offers a wide variety of presentations projected onto the ceiling of the dome theater by the computerized SkySkan DigitalSky star field projector. Visitors settle into reclining seats to experience space opening up before them seemingly larger than life. With high-resolution three-dimensional projections illustrating views from the Hubble, individual planets, and entire galaxies give viewers a feeling of experiencing rather than just viewing the universe.
The planetarium presentations alone are enough to make the trip to downtown Houston worth the trek, but when paired with admission to the Houston Museum of Natural Science proper, an experiential excursion easily becomes a daylong educational outing. Films showing in the planetarium often provide a deeper look at related exhibits within the museum.
Films shown at the museum
The subjects of films shown are fairly widely varied to include, but not limited to: archaeology, space and planetary science, ancient science as it relates to astronomy (Egyptian, Mayan) aeronautic/space technology, anatomical science, earth science, and prehistoric animal science (i.e. dinosaurs). Also, there is normally at least one animated offering for younger visitors. Currently running is Secret of the Cardboard Rocket; a Backyardigans-style film about using library books and the imagination to explore space but with planetarium quality animation. Not everything is educational, though. Seasonal films that are less academic in nature, such as the “Star of Bethlehem” which plays during the holiday season, are offered at various times throughout the year. The planetarium also offers shows that consist of classic rock set to light shows. One recent presentation featuring Pink Floyd and entitled Dark side of the Moon is extremely popular. The feature gives the viewer the feeling of being almost fully encapsulated within the pulsating lights and digital artistry projected onto the 360 degree screen while engulfed in the reverberating beats from the digital stereo sound system.
Making a day of it
The run time on planetarium films and presentations averages around twenty minutes. While each is a complete presentation packed full of information and provides a unique and memorable experience, it is definitely worthwhile to use the opportunity to visit the actual museum while there. Visiting both can provide a deeper educational experience as many of the films offered piggyback on either permanent or special exhibits to provide a more detailed look or varied perspective on the subject at hand. A dinosaur exhibit paired with a visually stimulating documentary enhanced with special effects can easily become the springboard for an entire unit study for a primary school student or class. Geological exhibit highlighting fossils and rock types in conjunction with a planetarium presentation on planetary formation and geologic time scale could help visitors get a more concrete grasp of lecture and class materials.
The museum offers field trips complete with TEKS aligned curriculum to school groups. With the size and vast array of subjects available for study in the museum, teachers have a plethora of focal options for field trips. The museum education coordination staff is also extremely helpful with providing curriculum and resources for further exploration after the visit. The planetarium side offers roughly half-priced admission for field trip participants’ private viewing, which would not only enhance the educational impact of the visit for students, but also provide a brief respite for teachers and chaperones amidst the excitement of the outing. Best of all, teachers get to pick the film they want their classes to see. Groups of twenty or more qualify for discounted admission which may be a good option for smaller private or charter schools and homeschool groups that may not be large enough to qualify for field trip packages.
Just for fun
Not all trips to the museum have to be centered on education (although some will definitely seep in no matter what the reason for the visit). Also housed in the museum is the Wortham Giant Screen Theater. While most of the films shown on the sixty by eighty foot screen are forty minute documentaries, full-length movies of the “just for fun” variety like Disney’s Frozen are shown as well. The museum also hosts birthday parties for kids, sleepover events, Boy and Girl Scout programs, and summer camps. Any of these would provide as much fun as learning for participants.