Science Center of Iowa Blog

At the Science Center of Iowa, our goal is to be a quality community resource for informal science learning where children, families, school groups and individuals come to explore science and technology. To continue the learning outside our walls, we give you the SCI blog! Our knowledgeable staff, along with special guests and local scientists, will give you a behind-the-scenes look at SCI activities and in-depth information about science events.

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SCI exhibit inspires award-winning fashion design

SCI exhibit inspires award-winning fashion design

Paper plates transformed into planets. CD shards transformed into bright stars. Hanging lights transformed into glittery constellations.

For a class of juniors and seniors at Lincoln High School, unconventional thinking and unconventional materials transformed into an award-winning dress design, inspired by SCI’s Why The Sky? experience platform.

“When I first heard about the project, I was excited because we got to work together and do something that we constructed in so many different ways with so many possibilities,” said senior Elia Juarez, director of the Lincoln fashion show.

Tia Wilson’s sewing class entered a DMACC fashion design contest this spring. The group had just one week to design and create a dress with SCI in mind. Per her students’ competitive nature, Wilson suggested they visit SCI, rather than just look at pictures of exhibits.

The group gravitated to Why The Sky?, focusing on the Mars rover replica and constellations, in particular. When they got back to the classroom, each student did a sketch of the dress. Students combined their ideas into a single piece and got to work… They had just four days to sew the finished product, after all.

“We had to use recyclable materials when we were making it, so we used paper plates,” said senior Allison Esle. “We didn’t really know how we were going to get them to stick on, so we tried to hand sew them. The plates ripped a little. We tried to hot glue them. That was probably the hardest part.”

Halfway through the week, the dress design had fallen away from its original inspiration at SCI, so Wilson helped her students refocus the piece without starting over.

Scientific discoveries, like the dress, require unconventional materials and unconventional thinking.

“I said, ‘Well, we can’t start from scratch, so how can we use what we already have to make it different?’”

Junior Binti Mohamed said she and her classmates weren’t sure if the dress would turn out as they had planned, especially after their midweek redesign, but the final piece surprised them.

“It was really awesome,” Mohamed said. “It didn’t always look like it was going to turn out well, but it did.”

The dress won the contest and was showcased in the DMACC Fashion Show on Friday, April 14. Juarez, the director of the fashion show, said she enjoyed seeing the dress inspire others at the event.

“I think just the most rewarding thing is being able to work with other people and see our creation out there and see other people looking at it and taking away whatever they want from it,” she said.

The Science Center of Iowa’s Make@SCI initiative encourages people of all ages to be makers and use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Making empowers children and adults alike to reimagine everyday materials and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.

Category: STEM in DSM


SCI Staff Spotlight: Meet Rhiley Binns

SCI Staff Spotlight: Meet Rhiley Binns

For SCI Programs Presenter Rhiley Binns, science education encompasses a variety of interests — and unusual audiences. From space enthusiasts and SCI visitors to reptiles and red pandas, Binns’ career has provided an array of interactions at every turn.

After graduating from Central College with a degree in biology, Binns joined the SCI staff as a summer camp iEARTH educator. She introduced campers to Iowa’s natural habitats, waterways and native animals, championing conservation through canoe rides, hikes and hands-on activities.

“There are amazing natural spaces in the Des Moines metro, and I loved spending every day outside exploring with campers,” Binns said.

Her audience changed considerably that fall when she started a new role as the small mammal keeper at the Blank Park Zoo. Binns worked with red pandas, primates and more. Interacting with a diverse array of animals kept her busy, but there’s one audience she missed in particular.

“I missed interacting with the public and teaching people about science,” Binns said.

Today, she’s back at SCI full-time as a programs presenter, and she gets to work with Iowa’s native animals while sharing her passion for biology, conservation and science. Binns leads live programs like Cold-Blooded Critters, Zap! and more, as well as educating visitors about natural objects at theCollectors’ Cornermini-exhibit.

Binns’ passion for science education still takes her outside at monthly Star Parties at Ewing Park and at SCI. Her new role as SCI’s astronomy expert keeps her in tune with what’s going on in the solar system.

“I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a child, so I love sharing what’s happening in the night skies with visitors and showing them how telescopes work,” she said. “It’s amazing when you see someone come to their first Star Party and experience the solar system in a new way.”

Category: General SCI


Iowa’s oldest oak makes SCI its new home

Iowa’s oldest oak makes SCI its new home

The oldest oak species in Iowa is coming to SCI in the form of a giant tree slice that took more than five years to prepare.

Animal Specialist Mark Rouw teamed up with the Iowa DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers, SCI staff and private land owners in 2012 to harvest a slice of the 442-year-old oak, which blew down in a storm near Hartford, Iowa, in 2005. Preserving the wood was the next step — one that required years of patience and, of course, science.

After a trip to the sawmill to cut the specimen straight, Rouw sanded the surface and applied a wood-stabilizing chemical to the tree slice and let it dry for more than three years.

“It’s all about how slow it dries,” he said. “We had some setbacks along the way but adjusted the chemicals as we went.”

Three years later, the tree slice will soon move into its new, permanent home in SCI’s upper level experience platform What On Earth? on February 13. First, though, it’s being outfitted with a custom circle frame to hold the wood together.

After years of work, Rouw said he’s excited to have a historic piece of Iowa’s environment at SCI.

“I’m looking forward to seeing the finished piece,” he said.

Visit SCI this spring to see the finished product in What On Earth?, and don’t miss other upgrades throughout the exhibit made possible in part through support from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Historical Resource Development Program.

Category: General SCI


The Math of Making STEM Connections

The Math of Making STEM Connections

1,624 containers of Play-Doh, 203 sewing machines, 406 rolls of duct tape… And that’s just the start. It all adds up to SCI’s Making STEM Connections kits for educators across the state.

Making STEM Connections kits have transformed classrooms and libraries into dynamic makerspaces, complete with a variety of innovative materials. The Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council selected SCI’s Making STEM Connections for the 2016-17 Scale-Up Program, giving educators access to hands-on, interactive program for grades K-8.

From building a robot that can draw to creating textiles, Making STEM Connections works with educators’ existing curriculum to enhance STEM skills and reinforce the Maker mindset through interactive problem-solving.

SCI Education Specialist Jolie Pelds has managed the project – from purchasing materials to leading professional development trainings at schools.

“Making STEM Connections has given the Science Center of Iowa the opportunity to help educators all across the state create a makerspace in their learning environment,” Pelds said. “The combination of professional training and a tool cart with materials provides a platform to build on hands-on experiences that ignite students’ interest in STEM.”

So… What do Making STEM Connections kits for more than 430 educators in 101 Iowa cities look like?

  • 406 rolls of duct tape
  • 1,218 MaKey MaKey invention kits
  • 203 sewing machines
  • 896 books
  • 2,030 felting needles
  • 6,090 Lithium button cell batteries
  • 1,624 containers of Play-Doh
  • 1,015 packages of zip ties

Volunteers and staff contributed more than 100 hours packaging all the kits, creating memorable makerspaces for classrooms in the Des Moines metro and beyond.

For Pelds, the impact of Making STEM Connections lasts long after all the tool carts are shipped to schools across the state.

“It has been so exciting to hear from teachers on all the ways that they have been able to enrich their existing curriculum with the Making STEM Connections program,” she said.

At Lamoni Middle School, science teacher Liz Carpenter said Making STEM Connections kits have given her students new opportunities for project-based learning.

“My kids were so excited when the tool cart arrived and I started showing them the supplies,” Carpenter said. “One of my girls was looking in all the drawers and said, ‘Oh, I can hardly wait to start my project!’ We have been using the drill, saw, tools, batteries and other items from the kit since about a day after it arrived.”

Learn more about Making STEM Connections and SCI professional development for teachers

Category: General SCI


Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Star Partier Dan Chibnall

Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Star Partier Dan Chibnall

A-ha moments happen in unlikely, even faraway places — 1.2 billion kilometers away on Saturn, to be exact. As a Star Party volunteer, Dan Chibnall brings the solar system into focus for SCI participants, inviting them to experience our solar system in awe-inspiring clarity.

We sat down with Dan to discuss how he got started at SCI Star Parties, his early interest in astronomy and the search for alien life.

SCI: How long have you been volunteering at SCI?

DC: It will be four years this fall. My friend and fellow Star Partier K.O. Myers got me started. He encouraged me to come out and try a Star Party in 2012, and I fell in love right away.

SCI: What was it about Star Parties, specifically, that caught your attention?

DC: It was a combination of things. First, it's an amazing learning opportunity for kids, teenagers and adults. There's no specific audience we're gearing it toward. We want everyone to come out and learn something. Second, Star Parties remind us that you can feel joy and wonder at your natural surroundings, especially when you look up at the night sky. All good science teaching must have a dose of wonder mixed in. It brought me joy because I get to hear all the fun questions from kids and try to answer them the best I can. Plus, I get to use a pretty neat telescope to look at our solar system.

SCI: When did you first become interested in astronomy, and what piqued your interest?

DC: When I was 8, my parents gave me a book on ancient Greek myths and later that year, they gave me a small book on the planets of our solar system. I was fascinated by both and loved that astronomers had named all the planets after characters and gods from ancient myths. That was when I really started to get interested in how the planets differed from one another. Plus, the Voyager probes were still sending pictures back from the outer planets and that was exciting, too, although that was pre-internet so you had to hope you might see something on TV or in a newspaper or magazine. 

SCI: How did your educational and professional background influence your interest in astronomy?

DC: I'm a science librarian and have been collaborating with science departments for many years. So, even though I work with students and faculty in biology, chemistry and physics, I get to work astronomy and astrophysics into my conversations and lessons from time to time. The scientific method works across every one of the many fields of science, so there's always a way to use an example from astronomy to make a point or illuminate a teachable moment.

SCI: Can you describe a moment you saw a Star Party participant have an a-ha moment or make a discovery?

DC: Oh, many times! The one thing that gets people every single time is seeing the rings of Saturn through our largest telescope. Most people gasp, some laugh, some just exclaim, "Oh my goodness!" They just can't believe they're seeing something that is 1.2 billion kilometers away, and it's right there in front of their eyes. Now kids, they like the Moon quite a bit. It's bright, big and they always ask about the craters and whether there are aliens there. I tell them no, but then wink and say, "Well, we haven't found any... yet!"

SCI: Why should other astronomy enthusiasts volunteer at SCI Star Parties?

DC: There are many reasons to volunteer at Star Parties! You get to teach the public about the vast wonders of the solar system. You get to see kids and teenagers excited about seeing something they've literally never seen before. You get to work with an amazing team, full of new facts and discoveries at every party. Finally, you get to remind people that there's more to the universe than just what's happening here on Earth. It's a learning experience for everyone involved.


From common astronomical occurrences to rare cosmic phenomena, join us at Star Parties to learn about our solar system and beyond. Join SCI staff and members of the Des Moines Astronomical Society (DMAS) to take a look through high-powered telescopes and get a quick lesson on the basics of telescope operation. Guests will have the opportunity to observe celestial objects, colorful double stars and star clusters, meteor showers and more.

Star Parties are free and open to the public.

For more information on Star Parties and to view the 2016 schedule, visit