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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Unearthing the American dream at Effigy Mounds

Unearthing the American dream at Effigy Mounds

Effigy Mounds in northeast Iowa has layers of significance. There’s the park’s importance among Native American communities. There’s its status as Iowa’s only national monument. There are the physical mounds, each mystically carved into Iowa’s landscape.

Located in Monona, Iowa, in Allamakee County, Effigy Mounds joins national parks and historical sites under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, which celebrates its centennial in August.

The park’s trademark mounds were formed by Native Americans in the shapes of animal spirits, including birds, deer, bison and lynx.

Northeast Iowa and Wisconsin are the only places in the Midwest have these types of highly concentrated mounds.

The mystery is part of the park’s allure for Effigy Mounds Cultural Resources Manger Albert LeBeau. He understands how the mounds were made — it’s the lingering “Why?” that inspires lasting relationships and collaboration with more than 20 Native American tribes.

“It’s about making sure that story is being told and making sure it’s told correctly,” LeBeau says. “We work hard to reestablish a working relationship with tribal partners. We have open, frank conversations about the management of the park together.”

For Chief Ranger Bob Palmer, the park’s importance is rooted in little moments that embody what it means to be an American.

Palmer’s national parks career has taken him to North Carolina, the Virgin Islands, Virginia and the north island of New Zealand. At Effigy Mounds, he oversees everything from visitor center operations and school visits to environmental protection and park upkeep.

Distilling a 29-year national parks career into a moment or two is tough for Palmer, but one Effigy Mounds moment still has him tearing up, 15-some years later.

Palmer took a group of fourth graders on a hike at Effigy Mounds, asking history trivia along the way.

He started things off with a story about Fort Crawford, which is across the Mississippi River. The commanding officer’s daughter there married a soldier named Jefferson Davis. Palmer asked if anyone knew who Davis was.

“This little boy raised his hand and shyly said, ‘Wasn’t he the president of the confederacy during the Civil War?’ ‘Yes, yes, he was,’ I said. ‘And his father-in-law was Zachary Taylor, does anyone know who Zachary Taylor was?’”

The boy answered question after question correctly, even acing Zachary Taylor’s nickname: “Old Rough and Ready.”

Palmer finished the hike and stopped to chat with the boy’s teachers.

“I said, ‘Boy, that fella is really switched on. He knows his history,’ and she looked at me, and said, ‘Yeah, he’s a Bosnian immigrant. He’s only been here for two-and-a-half years because his family was in the civil war in Bosnia. They moved over here, and he’s really embraced being an American.’”

Fifteen-some years later, that moment still encapsulates Palmer’s understanding of America’s National Park Service and all it encompasses.

“The value of our parks, national monuments and historical sites allows us to weave a tapestry among our citizenry that brings us all together in one form or another,” Palmer said. “You go to these parks and people have experiences that transform their lives. In that case, it was an experience that transformed mine.”


Experience the transformative power of the parks with National Parks Adventure in IMAX at SCI. Plus, get a local taste of America’s nationally protected lands with a trip to Effigy Mounds this summer!

Category: General SCI


How #MuseumInstaSwap came to Des Moines

How #MuseumInstaSwap came to Des Moines

By Taylor Soule, SCI communications coordinator

Last week, we threw a party with our friends for Iowa Museum Week — on Instagram! I organized the first-ever #MuseumInstaSwapDSM, featuring six Des Moines cultural institutions “swapping” stories and photos on Instagram on Wednesday, June 8.

Where did this idea come from? As I scrolled through Twitter one evening in February, New York City’s #MuseumInstaSwap caught my attention. Air and space museums, design museums, science centers, art museums, history museums and more teamed up for a special, one-day social media event.

Each museum teamed up with another institution, and the swap strived to pair up institutions with different audiences, exhibits and missions. It was inspiring to see 18 NYC institutions publicly support each other and share each one’s important role in educating visitors from around the world. Naturally, I decided Des Moines needed its own #MuseumInstaSwapDSM!

Planning Des Moines’ own Instagram party

Planning a day-long Instagram party is any millennial’s dream, so I started emailing contacts from several institutions that participated in the NYC swap. They provided valuable insight into the process of coordinating the swap and pairing up participating institutions.

Next, I reached out to our contacts at five local institutions: the Blank Park Zoo, the Des Moines Art Center, Living History Farms, the Salisbury House and Terrace Hill. They all said yes!

All six institutions submitted a 140-character “pitch” describing why participating museums should partner with them for the swap. Then, each museum had an opportunity to rank the other partners based on which institution it would most like to work with.

I matched them up as fairly as possible, and by mid-May, we had three pairs!

  • Blank Park Zoo and the Salisbury House
  • Des Moines Art Center and the Science Center of Iowa
  • Living History Farms and Terrace Hill

I announced the official pairings, and finally, it was time for the best part – exploring our partner museum in pursuit of awesome Instagram photos. I visited the Des Moines Art Center and toured all three of the institution’s distinct buildings and snapped photos of my favorite pieces, the museum’s iconic works of art, as well as an #ArtCenterSelfie or two.

What I learned from #MuseumInstaSwapDSM

This project ingrained Instagram in my daily social media routine; I looked forward to posting every hour or so throughout the day after writing all my posts the Sunday before. I had long perceived Instagram as a tool to share what we’re doing here at SCI. #MuseumInstaSwapDSM revealed Instagram’s potential as a collaborative tool, enabling me to share SCI’s brand and mission while advancing the important work of another Des Moines museum.

It was fun to see how participating institutions adapted their own brands for the day. I loved the Blank Park Zoo’s #WildAboutHistory hashtag from their visit to the Salisbury House, for example. The Art Center incorporated its signature #entirelyunexpected hashtag in posts about SCI’s Blank IMAX Dome Theater and our newCollectors’ Cornermini-exhibit.

Thanks to our friends at the Blank Park Zoo, Des Moines Art Center, Living History Farms, Salisbury House and Terrace Hill for saying yes to the idea and for celebrating Iowa Museum Week with us!

Category: General SCI


Volunteer Spotlight: SCI staff share their talents through animal rescue, theatre and more

SCI Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns snaps a picture before a day of volunteering at Krudenier Second Chance Ranch.

SCI Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns snaps a picture before a day of volunteering at Krudenier Second Chance Ranch.

In her free time, SCI Programs Coordinator and pet foster mom Bridgett Harvey transports Boston terriers to their forever homes. Though the drives can be long and the goodbyes are always tough, she takes comfort in finding new homes for pets with troubled pasts.

SCI staff volunteer for a variety of local nonprofits, sharing their time and (sometimes hidden) talents. Volunteers off all ages over diverse perspectives and support SCI’s mission through their contributions to special events, daily programming, Summer Camps and more. Staff return the favor through their own volunteer endeavors with animal rescue, theatre, education and more.

We sat down with Bridgett, Programs Coordinator Maddie Mardesen and Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns to learn more about their volunteer work in the Des Moines metro.

Bridgett connects pets with permanent homes

Besides sharing her home with foster dogs, Bridgett volunteers with Animal Lifeline of Iowa, where she helps cats learn to socialize and play before they meet their own forever families. An avid Maker, Bridgett shares her latest pet projects and treats at a craft show every year and donates all the proceeds to Animal Lifeline of Iowa.

“I feel passionate about that rescue, specifically, since they do a lot of good work with puppy mills and re-homing dogs that have had a hard life or have been in a cage forever and don’t know how to act like a dog again,” Bridgett said.

Maddie shines behind the scenes and on stage

She’s on stage at SCI with snakes, salamanders and, of course, our Blue-Haired Friend Stuffee. But in her spare time, Maddie works behind the scenes as a volunteer stage manager at the Des Moines Playhouse and Tallgrass Theatre Company in West Des Moines.

She’s the assistant stage manager for Tallgrass’ upcoming production of “Children of a Lesser God.”

Stacie: anthropology, animals and the Arthritis Foundation

Stacie recently took on several new volunteer projects, including National History Day in April.

An anthropology grad, she judged 6th – 8th grade history projects at the regional event sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. With submissions ranging from websites to theatre productions to films, Stacie said she was excited to experience her first National History Day complete with a variety of projects.

“I was pretty stoked to see what the students created,” she said.

Besides volunteering at the Arthritis Walk with her family every year, Stacie also recently joined the Animal Rescue League’s volunteer program.

“I’m excited for these new adventures,” she said.


The not-so-day-to-day life of a Yellowstone Park Ranger

The not-so-day-to-day life of a Yellowstone Park Ranger

Park Ranger Mike Coonan’s “office” is more than 20 million acres of glaciated valleys, pristine forests and, of course, the signature geysers at Yellowstone National Park. We sat down with Mike, a University of Northern Iowa alumnus, to discuss his path to the parks and the upcoming centennial of the National Park Service.

SCI: How long have you been a park ranger at Yellowstone National Park, and how did you land there?

MC: I’ve been working at Yellowstone National Park for seven years now. It’s a second career for me. It takes a college degree. I’m a graduate of UNI. Go, Panthers! I had a friend who was a park ranger at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge here in Iowa, and she encouraged me to apply for a program called the Youth Conservation Corps, and I also applied for the Yellowstone program. I was offered both jobs, between working in the Upper Peninsula in Michigan or Yellowstone, and I chose Yellowstone. I haven’t looked back.

SCI: Can you describe the day-to-day life of a park ranger?

MC: One of the things I love about my job as a park ranger in resource youth education programs is that there is no day to day. Today I’m working at SCI. Other days when I’m in the park, my favorite thing is leading school groups. We like to call Yellowstone the largest laboratory or the largest classroom, being over two million acres and being preserved as the first national park in 1871.

Of course, I study the geysers and hot springs that make Yellowstone so famous, but also the plants and animals and the landscape, where we can look down a river valley or a glaciated valley. To not see a building or a road or a fence or even a power line is amazing. We can really talk about the plants and animals and also the super-volcano, which is a source of energy in the geysers. We have Earth science, animal science, biology, as well as human history. My favorite thing is to walk and talk in the resource and be able to look at it, touch it, feel it, smell it. We usually don’t allow visitors to taste it.

SCI: Is there a specific age group of students you like to work with?

MC: I love my team that I work with because we have different expertise. When it comes to the Pre-K through first grade, yeah, they scare me. I like working with grad students from the University of Texas in microbiology. Working with teens or preteens is my niche. I work with junior-high/high school, sometimes college. I also work with teachers, which is amazing. The diversity is incredible. When my office is outside, those are the good days.

SCI: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

MC: I always say Yellowstone does its job every day when we have kids, students and teachers in the natural resource. We can talk scats and tracks. When they discover that and call you over, it’s their discovery.

How much they teach me is amazing. We’ll talk about why we can’t pick up the petrified wood or obsidian. You know, the natural resources. To quote a fourth grader, ‘So someone else can discover it.’ I stole that line from that student. I think it’s spot-on. With over four million visitors in the park throughout the year, you can’t take a rock. If everyone took a rock, that would be devastating. We’re facing probably a busier year with the National Park Service turning 100. It’s amazing to have a fourth grader make a discovery and say, ‘Yeah, so the next person can find this arrowhead or piece of petrified wood or this teepee ring.’ Same thing with scat. Hopefully no one is putting that in their pockets, but you never know.

SCI: Can you talk about the centennial of the National Park Service coming up this summer?

MC: It’s great, and they’ll be doing other free days on the centennial, which is in August. August 25, give or take a day. It’s amazing that we’re nationwide celebrating our national parks, including our urban parks and historic areas, as well as our iconic parks like Yellowstone. It’s amazing.

SCI: How many national parks have you visited?

MC: I don’t really keep track. Since I started working for the park service, I have explored more parks. I seem to enjoy them much more as a fellow park ranger than I ever did as a child.

I am not ashamed to say I got about seven Junior Ranger certifications last year. I am an official Junior Ranger at several different parks, not just my home park. That’s one of the things I really enjoy about working with the teen program, the Youth Conservation Corps, which was my foot in the door. It’s great to see how 15- to 18-year-olds get so excited about working with the Junior Ranger program. You can’t help but have fun, but you learn more about your park and how you can connect.

There are incredible programs all over. The Arches in Utah. The National Mall in D.C., which is the Washington Monument. As well as the White House. Our urban parks see a lot of visitors, and they have a lot of incredible programs.

Our catchphrase is, ‘Find your park,’ and we hope everyone finds a park! It’s on my to-do list to make it to Effigy Mounds here in Iowa. Find your park, get outside and enjoy this incredible system we call our National Park Service.


Hike, bike and climb through America’s most pristine parks with National Parks Adventure — now playing in IMAX!

Category: General SCI


STEM in DSM: Principal Park and the Pythagorean Theorem

STEM in DSM: Principal Park and the Pythagorean Theorem

Lines and figures dart from home plate, but they’re not plans for a winning play at Principal Park… They’re plans for every angle of an official baseball field, down to every last angle.

Casey Scheidel, business/project manager at Iowa Cubs Sports Turf Management, peels away the layers of a proposed baseball and softball complex in Anamosa, Iowa. Each blueprint page reveals a single element of a regulation field: the distance from home plate to the bases, the elevation of the mound, the watering radius of each sprinkler.

Geometry — and in particular, the Pythagorean Theorem — informs every element of your ballpark experience. Here are a few examples of the geometry of baseball in action:


  • It all starts at home plate. A surveyor determines the latitude and longitude of home plate, and the position of every other element of the field is based on its location. Home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches from the center of the pitcher’s mound.
  • Laser focus. Surveyors and engineers use software and GPS technology to exact the measurements of every point on the field.
  • Sun in your eyes? It’s for the batter’s sake. Major League Baseball stadiums are positioned based on sun angles, so the batter never looks directly into the sun.Pitch perfect. The perfect pitching mound increases in height one inch per foot.
  • Flattening the field can take days. Field elevation can’t change more than a quarter-inch over 25 square feet… And it can take the tractor up to two days to grade it, roll it and grade it again.
  • High-tech homeruns. Surveyors use CAD, computer aided drafting, to map the latitude and longitude of every point on the field, including the location of each fencepost.
  • Geometric grass. The signature crisscrosses, swirls and circles in the turf serve no purpose beyond beautifying the field… But geometry is key in their creation. The I-Cubs’ turf crew carefully lines up its mowers with the foul line and bases — and it can take five days to define a design on the field.

Experience the angles, lines and symmetry of your everyday world at the ballpark AND at SCI!

Iowa Cubs opening day is April 7. As you munch on peanuts and Cracker Jacks, imagine the now-invisible lines that helped create your favorite ballpark moments. Then, schedule a trip to SCI, where you can get moving with math in Geometry Playground, featuring a 10-foot climbing structure, Anamorphic Hopscotch and the Geometry Garden!

Category: STEM in DSM