HOUSTON (AP) - James Washington is giving a tour of the Houston Museum of Natural Science when he senses he’s losing the attention of two fidgety boys.
So Washington reaches inside a cart and brings out a piece of fossilized poop, a guaranteed crowd pleaser, especially if the crowd contains two 6-year-olds.
“So, it’s not really poop anymore,” Washington says, reassuring the now-mesmerized boys. “It doesn’t smell, and it’s rock-hard. So here’s a rule. If you see poop anywhere other than in a museum, don’t pick it up. But here, I want you to touch things. I want you to learn and to have fun, because science is fun. It’s why I do it.”
The Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/2hVnqnd ) reports no one does science at the Houston Museum of Natural Science quite like Washington. Or, as he’s more commonly known: Jurassic James.
Part encyclopedia, part comedian - think Robin Williams’ frenetic style of delivery - Washington is one of the museum’s most popular tour guides, beloved by parents who say that he’s sparked an interest in their children about everything from volcanoes to trilobites.
His tours are a blend of science, jokes and pop culture references. For example, if you’ve seen the movie “Up,” then you’ll understand why Washington calls the museum’s diatryma “Kevin.”
“I really believe he could be the next Bill Nye (the Science Guy),” said Kim Hartman, a Houston mom who runs a group for home-schooled families. “He’s got that much potential as a science communicator.”
Likewise, he’s an inspiration to museum colleagues who have witnessed his ascent from working in guest services just a few years ago to becoming one of the institution’s lead educators. He was recently promoted, and today is responsible for training the museum’s guides.
“You could tell right way that James was special, that he had more to give this museum,” said Angel DeLeon, the museum’s director of human resources and customer services. “His enthusiasm is just infectious, and he always goes above and beyond to make sure our guests have a great experience.”
The quintessential Jurassic James experience entails dinosaurs, which, as Washington says, “are my heartbeat.”
Washington, 32, has been fascinated with the prehistoric creatures since he was a kid, growing up in Channelview.
“In 1993, I saw ‘Jurassic Park.’ I know the raptor scene was the one that most people remember, but for me, it was the brachiosaurus scene. To see animals that massive moving around on land, just triggered something in my brain, and I was like, ‘Yep, that’s it.’?”
That interest propelled him toward academic pursuits at Lone Star College. While working as a tutor there, he offered to help geology students earn extra credit by touring the museum’s Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals.
Washington, who had been collecting rare rocks and minerals for years, led the informal tours and captured the attention of the museum staff, who were impressed by his extensive knowledge of natural science and their exhibits.
Truth be told, Washington had been visiting the museum for years. He wanted to work there, but insecurity prevented him from applying.
When Washington finally worked up the courage to apply in 2011, the museum quickly hired him and tapped him to serve as a guest service representative. He did everything from working in the garage to selling tickets.
But his bosses quickly realized that Washington was an educator at heart and a natural at giving tours. So they made him one of the museum’s first Discovery Guides, which give tours to the public.
“Since then, James has been one of our go-to guys,” DeLeon said. “Anytime a VIP comes through, a donor, the mayor or another elected official, we send them to James.”
He once gave a tour that lasted almost 11 hours, which probably wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s ever asked Washington a question.
His knowledge of the exhibits is so extensive, he frequently points out things that few visitors ever notice on their own.
During a recent tour, he pointed out a baby trilobite - no bigger than a large grain of rice - next to a fossilized adult trilobite.
“This is part of his thorax. And we have a thoracic vertebrae here. And at the end here, they call it the pygidium. I call it the trilobutt.”
While Washington excels at tours, they represent only a fraction of his role at the museum. Above all else, he is a teacher and leads several classes. A graduate of the University of Houston, Washington hopes to someday teach earth sciences at a college level.
Washington’s classroom is truly a sight to behold. It is filled with more than 10,000 figurines, shells and rocks he’s collected over the years. On the walls, Washington has meticulously drawn the Earth’s geologic cycles, including how volcanoes form and how water evaporates.
It takes almost two weeks to pack up Washington’s class materials when he vacates the rooms each summer to accommodate camps. But each fall, he sets it up again, redrawing dozens of images on the white board.
Hartman said seeing the classroom for the first time led her to seek out Washington to teach home-school students.
“Even when you have the most jaded, blasé kid who’s thinking, ‘Great, I can’t believe you made me do this,’ after 10 minutes with James, they’re hanging on by the edge of their seat, taking in everything he has to say and ready to ask questions,” she said.
Because of his recent promotion, Washington doesn’t give as many tours as he once did.
Still, he makes time for those who request him, particularly repeat visitors.
Recently, one of those families sent a photo to him of their daughter kneeling by a patch of algae. Just as Jurassic James had told her, she was thanking the algae for creating oxygen.
It was one of those moments that made Washington realize that he was making a difference.
“The fact that I’m having any kind of impression on kids’ lives at all is just amazing,” he said. “But that’s the power of science, you know?”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com
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