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.

Latest Posts


Staff Science Shenanigans: Joe builds an air cannon

Joe demonstrates how a trash can, shower curtain and bungee cord can be turned into a cool science experiment!

Joe demonstrates how a trash can, shower curtain and bungee cord can be turned into a cool science experiment!

By: Joe Schwanebeck, Director of Education

"Don’t try this at home… try it at work, instead."

Our staff is always looking for new ways to help people have fun and connect with science. There’s a near constant e-mail exchange amongst our team with links to science blogs, news articles, YouTube videos, and ideas for scaling up experiments and science concepts to give them the "wow" factor that our participants love. From there, we start to prototype, test, and piece together new experiences before they ever see the museum floor. 

One of our most recent projects, an air cannon, made its debut at our Annual Fundraising Event and was inspired by Steve Spangler. One of the great things about it is that it’s made from things you probably have around the house: a trash can, a shower curtain liner, and some bungee cords — science doesn’t always require high-tech equipment!

Putting it all together is an easy process: Just stretch the shower curtain liner over the top of the trash can like a drum, using the bungee cords to keep it in place. Cut a hole in the middle of the bottom of the trash can, and you're ready to go!

Here’s how it works, with your daily science vocabulary thrown in: 

When the shower curtain (membrane) is hit, the air inside of the trash can (chamber) experiences increased pressure, and that forces some of the air out of the small hole (aperture) on the other end. The air that leaves the middle of that hole is moving quickly, while the air leaving around the edges of the hole gets slowed down. This makes the air fold over on itself again and again, causing a ring to move through the air. Since our air is notoriously hard to see, filling the trash can with something like fog or smoke makes it much easier to see what’s going on. 

That blast of air folding over on itself is called a vortex ring, and it’s not just a nifty party trick: vortex rings can be found in explosions, scuba diver bubbles, and weather events like microbursts. Iowans are all too familiar with another type of vortex: tornadoes.

Our air cannon is quickly becoming a hit with our participants (and staff)! Check it out in this video, then plan a visit to SCI soon to find your new favorite experience!

Joe Schwanebeck is SCI's Director of Education (and a fan of the serial comma, much to the chagrin of SCI's Communication Team). As part of his job, Joe works to align SCI's experiences with the curriculum needs of classrooms across Iowa. His desk sometimes doubles as a prototyping space for new experiments, so this blog was typed between a cardboard model of a buckyball and a test-tube filled with a greenish liquid. Joe has worked at SCI since December 2007, when he started as an Outreach Presenter.

Category: General SCI


Cinema... with the stars

Moviegoers enjoy SCI's first outdoor movie, Space Jam!

Moviegoers enjoy SCI's first outdoor movie, Space Jam!

By: Kim Blythe, Promotions and Events Coordinator

Have you heard about Cinema Under the Stars? This summer, SCI is experiencing a season of space exploration! As SCI's Promotions and Events Coordinator, I wanted to do a space-themed summer event, and I thought it would be fun to draw on my history in film to bring some outdoor movie excitement to Des Moines!

I have been at SCI for almost two years. My journey to SCI comes by way of eight years in Los Angeles, California, where I worked as a publicist for the theatrical release of major motion pictures.

Movies have always played a significant role in my adult life, so it was a natural fit for me when it came to creating an outdoor summer movie experience for guests at SCI.

Outdoor movies were a big part of summer fun when I lived in LA. Whether it was experiencing a movie on the big screen that you were too young to see in an actual theater or a just seeing film that you can quote every line, but this time, it’s outdoors under the starry sky - there's nothing like it.

If you asked anyone in LA the absolute best place to experience an outdoor movie in the city, there's no question that their answer would be the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.

Wait, hold the phone – a cemetery?

Yes, you read that right. The best place to go to an outdoor movie in Los Angeles was in a historic cemetery, the final resting place to people like gangster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, director Cecil B. DeMille, actress Estelle Getty and musician Johnny Ramone.

Hundreds of people (even some in costume) would flock to this historic cemetery with picnic baskets and blankets in hand to see everything from Grease to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. No, we didn’t sit amongst the tombstones to watch the movie, it was projected on - wait for it - the side of a mausoleum.

Sometimes actors from the film would even show up to introduce it... very "Hollywood." I have to admit that watching a movie at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery was a surreal experience - but there was nothing else like it.

Cinema Under the Stars may not happen in a cemetery - not many outdoor movies nights do - but it’s a cool way to experience a movie that you haven’t seen before or one you may just want to watch again on the big screen!

With SCI’s season of space exploration fully underway, our team looked to the stars when choosing films for the inaugural Cinema Under The Stars. This Friday, August 17, we will be screening the two-time Academy Award winning film, Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks.

Drinks and food are available beginning at 7 pm, and the movie begins at dusk. Find more information at

Category: General SCI


Curiosity... It inspires us all.

Like my shirt? If you want one for yourself, we sell them in SCI's A-Ha! Gift Store!

Like my shirt? If you want one for yourself, we sell them in SCI's A-Ha! Gift Store!

By: Emilee Richardson, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

It’s been five days since NASA’s latest Mars rover, Curiosity, made its much-anticipated landing on the Red Planet. And five days later, I still haven't settled down!

What made this mission so captivating was that for the first time, the public could follow along with the action... live. (Minus the 14-minute delay that it takes for data to reach us from Mars, of course.) NASA did a great job of building the anticipation, and they followed through by live-streaming and live-tweeting the whole event. (Keep in mind, when Spirit and Opportunity landed on Mars in 2004, YouTube didn’t even exist. Crazy, right?)

So yes, I stayed up past midnight to watch the landing via NASA’s live video stream. And yes, I was glued to my monitor in anticipation as Eyes On the Sky, the computer simulation, showed Curiosity performing its impossibly difficult and risky Entry Decent and Landing (EDL) maneuvers. And yes, I’ve been geeking out for the past five days as new images and information are transmitted back to Earth. But the thing that made me most excited?

What made me most excited was how EVERYONE was into it. Everyone was talking about it. Everyone was excited about Mars – about space – about science! The mission was remarkable, but the response it got was equally as remarkable.

From the minute I sat down at my laptop around 11:00 pm on August 5, my Twitter stream was almost exclusively focused on @MarsCuriosity. And it only got better. My fingers could barely type and click fast enough to keep up with the new information from NASA and the nearly instantaneous reactions from the public. But as MSL began its "7 Minutes of Terror," the tweets slowed down… Everyone was holding their breath and watching their screens.

“We have touchdown – We are on Mars.”

With that, we were all back at it. Tweeting, posting, commenting. Sharing the excitement of the feat that had just been accomplished... an incredible mission that started with something as simple as curiosity.

I’m not ready to let that excitement go yet. I want to keep reliving it. So here are some of my favorite tweets from that historic night. [Full disclosure: @emileeann is me!]


Acronym Decoder:

Since Twitter only allows 140 characters, acronyms are used heavily. The rest of the post will make much more sense if you know what people are talking about!

MSL = Mars Science Laboratory, the name used for the spacecraft that carried Curiosity on its journey. Common consensus is that MSL was the spacecraft; Curiosity is the rover.

JPL = Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the U.S. center for robotic exploration in Pasadena, California, where Curiosity was built.

EDL = Entry, Decent and Landing, the mission phase from when the spacecraft hits the top of the Martian atmosphere to when it reaches the ground, as described JPL's video "7 MInutes of Terror."


Anticipation Builds...

It started early on Sunday

"The Olympics is cool and all but today NASA is lowering a car sized rover onto Mars using nylon strings attached to a rocket powered shelf." -Catherine @CatherineQ 4:52 am

The Science Center was into it

"Tonight, much like an Olympic gymnast, @MarsCuriosity needs to "stick the landing." " -Science Center of IA ‏@SCIOWA 7:35 pm

I was into it

"YOU GUYS, there's a rover landing on MARS in like four hours!!" -Emilee Richardson @emileeann ‏8:13 pm

Then Curiosity itself got in on the action!

"#MSL is currently moving 362 times faster than Usain Bolt! The Spacecraft is still accelerating until hitting Entry Interface... #Olympics " -MSL Curiosity ‏@MSL_101 9:00 pm

(Note: Curiosity was not actually tweeting from space. But it is a verified NASA account, and it was awesome.)

My favorite science blogger, Emily Lakdawalla, was live-blogging from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) when, coincidentally, the International Space Station flew by overhead

"About half the media room just ran outside to watch the Space Station fly overhead #ISSwave#MSL nice bright pass, wowed the crowd!" -Emily Lakdawalla ‏@elakdawalla 11:21 pm

Then Curiosity switched into EDL mode

"I'm inside the orbit of Deimos and completely on my own. Wish me luck! #MSL" -Curiosity Rover ‏@MarsCuriosity 11:12 pm

"Applause in #MSL control room: We are now in EDL mode." -New Scientist ‏@newscientist 11:50 pm

"Science is my new favorite Olympic sport." -Megan Sparkles‏ @megobits 11:52 pm

Some celebrities got a little goofy

"GUYS LOOK THERE IS WATER ON MARS.' -Wil Wheaton ‏@wilw 11:57 pm

But when the Mars orbiter, Odyssey, confirmed its position and that it would be able to relay Curiosity's landing live, things got really exciting

"That is, Odyssey's roll worked; she's now listening to #MSL Curiosity." -Emily Lakdawalla ‏@elakdawalla 12:07 am

"Earthlings. Cross stuff. Fingers, toes, whatever. Keep it there. Get the peanuts. We’re about to make history again w/MarsCuriosity" -Amber Naslund‏ @AmberCadabra 12:13 am

People were tuned in from coast to coast, including this gathering in Times Square

"In case anyone wondered if people would show up in Times Square at 1am on a sunday night to watch a robot land on Mars." -Blue Milker‏ @bluemilker 12:14 am

Entry, Decent and Landing...

Remember that 14-minute delay?

"#MSL is now on the surface. We're just narrating its progress, 14 light-minutes delayed, from here." -Scott Maxwell‏ @marsroverdriver 12:17 am

The "7 Minutes of Terror" begin

"Guided entry is begun. Here I go! #MSL" -Curiosity Rover ‏@MarsCuriosity 12:25 am

"7 minutes of terror starts NOW! #MSL#Curiosity" -Popular Science‏ @PopSci 12:26 am

"Parachute deployed. Backshell separation. Rockets are firing." It all happened so fast, and then...

"Standing by for Sky Crane! #MSL" -New Scientist ‏@newscientist 12:31 am

"'We're safe.' #MSL" -Emilee Richardson‏ @emileeann 12:31 am

"We're On Mars!"

Initial reactions

"Gold medal for NASA in the 563 billion meters" -Ben Dolman ‏@bdolman 12:34 am

"Hey 8-year-old me, I just watched NASA land a giant rover on Mars on my wireless pocket computer. You’re going to like it here in the future" -Matthew Panzarino ‏@mpanzarino 12:33 am

"Hey, I still have a job Monday. :-D #MSL" -Scott Maxwell‏ @marsroverdriver 12:48 am

And within seconds, images were coming in

"'Images coming down.' #MSL" -Emilee Richardson ‏@emileeann 12:35 am

"I see wheels on SOIL ! #MSL" -Emily Lakdawalla ‏@elakdawalla 12:34 am

"USA! USA! USA! USA!" -Jeremy Bingaman‏ @iowaradioguy 12:35 am

"'Keep watching the screen! There's more stuff, any minute now!' says someone on NASA TV #MSL" -New Scientist ‏@newscientist 12:35 am

There were some funny comments, too

"Sure, they can precisely land a rover on Mars. But I see a lot of awkwardly missed high fives in that control room." -Chris Sacca‏ @sacca 12:35 am

"Curiosity contemplates which Instagram filter to use." -Eva Giselle‏ @EvaZebra 12:36 am

The first hi-res images illicit some stunned reactions

"New hi-res images show the surface of Mars, and @MarsCuriosity's shadow. Amazing. #msl" -CNN Light Years‏ @CNNLightYears 12:38 am

"How do I buy a round for these NASA #curiosity engineers?" -Jill Van Wyke ‏@JillVanWyke 12:39 am

"Holy frak it actually worked. #MSL" -Emily Lakdawalla ‏@elakdawalla 12:39 am

And Curiosity got snarky again

"No photo or it didn't happen? Well lookee here, I'm casting a shadow on the ground in Mars' Gale crater #MSL" -Curiosity Rover ‏@MarsCuriosity 12:47 am

Other Great Moments...

There were some Olympics references


"Can NBC outsource their Olympic coverage to NASA? Better quality livestream, more knowledgeable announcers & actual live programming" -Whitney Muse‏ @arieswym 12:45 am

"Tonight's Mars landing = Proof you don't have to air something in prime time to capture the attention of the nation." -Matthew Keys ‏@ProducerMatthew 12:47 am

"Today I saw a man with no legs run in the Olympics and a robot from Earth land on Mars. Holy cow - science is awesome." -Janessa Goldbeck‏ @jgoldbeck 12:50 am

"NBC has a 6 hour delay for events 3000 miles away. NASA has a 15 minute delay for an event 150,000,000 miles away." -Matt Nunogawa ‏@amattn 12:58 am

Some people reflected

"I don’t know what we’ll find, but I do know that I’ll always remember this night. 'We dare mighty things.' #MSL" -Norah Carroll ‏@norahcarroll 12:48 am

"The excitement, joy & relief I saw in that room gave me tears. Tears of geeker joy. #MarsCuriosityLanding" -Heather ‏@BazingaCat 12:51 am

"Jokes aside, we're on Mars again. We are on Mars. This is another amazing milestone in humanity's quest to reach out to the stars. Bravo." -Thai Luong ‏@thailuong 1:03 am

And there were some pretty amazing quotes

"'It's time to see where our Curiosity will take us.' #MSL" -Emily Lakdawalla ‏@elakdawalla 12:38 am

"'Given a task to do. One that seems impossible. Given the desire to do it, humans can accomplish almost anything.' – Jim Lovell #MSL" -Geoff B‏ @zerogguy 12:51 am

"Holdren: 'Even the longest of odds are no match for America's unique blend of technical acumen and gutsy determination' #MSL" -Popular Science‏ @PopSci 1:28 am

"'There's a one-ton piece of American ingenuity and it's sitting on the surface of Mars right now,' @whitehouseostp's John Holdren #MSL" -NASA ‏@NASA 1:30 am

Even from the President

"'Tonight, on the planet Mars, the United States of America made history.' —President Obama" -Barack Obama ‏@BarackObama 12:57 am

And we crashed the NASA website!

"#NASA websites are down because all of you, and all of us, are so excited about #MSL" -Popular Science‏ @PopSci 12:55 am

"NASA websites crashed. Lander didn't. Way it should be. #MSL#MarsCuriosity" -Katie Mack ‏@AstroKatie 1:00 am

There were pleas to save the space program

"Mr. President, this is why space is still cool and worth exploring. Boo yeah! #MarsCuriosity" -Romelle Slaughter II‏ @RHS76 12:52 am

"In case you missed it earlier - Curiosity cost $2.5B. Americans spend $7B on potato chips annually. To say we can't afford this is nonsense." -Nick Hlavacek ‏@NickInNC 12:54 am

"Hey Congress/@BarackObama: This was Times Sq tonight: - @NASA inspires us, brings us together. Fund it." -Rob Sheridan ‏@rob_sheridan 2:53 am

And Curiosity thanked us for our support

"To the entire team & fans back on Earth, thank you, thank you. Now the adventure begins. Let's dare mighty things together! #MSL" -Curiosity Rover‏ @MarsCuriosity 1:37 am

While I'm sure many of you agree with the irony of this tweet...

"Years from now when our kids ask where we were when @MarsCuriosity landed, we can proudly say ‘furiously updating Twitter.’" -Grant Goodale ‏@ggoodale 1:05 am

...this statement pretty much sums up my feelings on the whole night

"I love that we did this, and I love that people love that we did this." -Phil Plait‏ @BadAstronomer 1:28 am

The excitement even continued the next day...

"You know what? I still can't believe it worked." -Emily Lakdawalla‏ @elakdawalla 9:16 pm

And my friend Jeremy posted a tweet that was retweeted more than 800 times (including by @NASA)

"When was the last time hundreds of people gathered in Times Square and chanted the name of a gov't agency? Oh yeah, never. Go @NASA!" -Jeremy Bingaman ‏@iowaradioguy 8:31 am


In Summary...

We did it. We landed on Mars. And we captured the imaginations of millions. Mission accomplished.

Shameless plug: Continue the journey, and learn more about the challenges of space travel by visiting SCI's latest traveling exhibition, Facing Mars, where you can try walking with Mars' gravity, test your space surgery skills and see a real Martian meteorite! Learn about other space-themed events at

Category: NASA


Kids say the nerdiest things!

We hear some pretty funny things out of the mouths of children (and adults) at SCI! This is our quote board.

We hear some pretty funny things out of the mouths of children (and adults) at SCI! This is our quote board.

By: Emilee Richardson, Marketing & Communications Coordinator

Kids say some hilarious things. They're innocent and naive, and they pretty much say whatever they're thinking. Add in some complicated science principles, and it's a recipe for giggle-inducing greatness!

Our SCI Programs Team has a whiteboard where they keep some of the most memorable quotes, and I wanted to share them with you. While doing my research, I discovered that for the past five years, each time the board filled up, someone would transcribe the quotes for safe-keeping before it was erased. I found the folder containing these notes and spent almost two hours in the office by myself laughing out loud.

Here's a sampling of some of our favorites:

During a live science program

SCI presenter during Cold Blooded Critters: "This is an ornate box turtle. Have you ever seen a turtle in the wild?"
Young girl: "I eat turtles!"
Parents (horrified): "NO SHE DOESN'T!!"

Girl, after getting off the Van de Graaff generator during Zap: "Man, that made me feel weird... like a nerd!"

SCI presenter during Fire & Ice: "What happens when water gets really, really hot?"
Young girl: "You get to make mac & cheese!!"

SCI presenter before turning on the Tesla coil during Zap: "Does anyone have a pacemaker or other life-saving electronic device?"
Concerned young girl: "Daddy! You have your Blackberry!!" 

10-year-old boy during Crazy Chemistry: "So what you're really saying is that science is fun?!"

Overheard on the floor

Mother points out an SCI presenter holding a snake. 6-year-old girl replies: "Mom, I have no time for these limbless creatures."

SCI presenter: "So... do you have any favorite planets?"
Young girl: "Yeah, in our garden, we have cucumbers and carrots and red peppers!"

Young boy during a temper tantrum: "I am not going to the bathroom until I LEARN SCIENCE!!!''

While on Outreach visits

3rd grade boy pointing at SCI presenter as she sets up for a program: "LOOK GUYS - It's science! It's science in that room!! Awesome!!!"

SCI presenter: "Can anyone give me an example of a natural disaster?"
6-year-old boy: "Puppies... in the rain."

Adults are funny too

Grown man, looking at plasma ball: "Ooh! They have one of those touchy-looky things!"

Father, to his 7-year-old son, as our Exhibits Team works on the engine block: "And this is men using tools to fix an exhibit about tools. We call this 'irony.'"

General SCI fun

6-year-old boy: "I can see why this place isn't called The BORING Center!"

SCI presenter: "What are the six different types of simple machines?"
Boy: "...a wedgie?"
(*For the record, the six types are: a lever, inclined plane, wheel and axle, screw, pulley and WEDGE.) 

And finally, a quote so good we turned it into a marketing slogan: "Science is fun until it gets messy... Then it's AWESOME!"

Category: General SCI


Don't just see a film... Experience the BIG picture!

Justin assembled The Dark Knight Rises from 49 individual film reels!

Justin assembled The Dark Knight Rises from 49 individual film reels!

By: Justin Rule, SCI Chief IMAX Projectionist

In case you haven't heard, Christopher Nolan, the director of the Dark Knight trilogy, loves large-format IMAX film.

This is why he's captured 72 minutes of footage of The Dark Knight Rises in the IMAX 15/70mm film format. What does that mean? “15/70” is film that has 15 sprockets or perforations per frames that are 70 mm wide versus traditional film projection that is only 4 sprockets or perforations per frames that are 35 mm wide – in other words, it’s a bigger, clearer film medium with 10 times the surface area as standard 35 mm film.

72 minutes of IMAX footage is almost half the entire movie and more than any other Dark Knight film! The IMAX format is obviously the way that the director wanted you to see this movie!

I could go into lots of details about the 15/70 film specifically, but the New York Times already did a great job in this article. Instead, let’s talk about what it takes to run one of the longest 15/70mm IMAX films to date.

First, here are some general The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR) IMAX film basics:

  • TDKR showed up at the theater in 49 small three-minute reels.
  • The 49 reels have to be spliced together, reel after reel, into one continuous piece of film weighing 700 lbs.
  • The film is wound onto a platter – a large flat metal disk – for playback and storage.

Take a look at some behind-the-scenes pictures of the film build here on SCI’s Facebook Page!

Building the largest-ever IMAX film

The IMAX film platter system that we use here at the Science Center of Iowa is designed to hold about 150 minutes of film. But TDKR is 165 minutes – 15 minutes longer than what our film platters were designed to carry. So to compensate, we had to make some modifications to our platters to fit the extra 15 minutes of film on!

First, we tightened the tension arms that tell film how tight to wrap-up back onto the platter; normally, they wrap at a medium tension, but for The Dark Knight Rises, we have these things maxed out. The film is wound as tight as it possibly can so that the wrap of film stays as small as it can. We need all the space on the platter we can get!

Second, IMAX designed a new film clamp system that holds the film from flying off the platter at full speed. These newly designed clamps hold the film at its outermost edge to allow the most film as much room as possible on the platter. It’s quite a sight to behold when all that film gets spinning up to speed!

Bigger really is better in IMAX

If you’re going to see The Dark Knight Rises, do yourself a favor and watch it as it was meant to be seen – in IMAX!

If you see it on a traditional theater’s smaller screen first, see it again at the Science Center of Iowa’s Blank IMAX Dome Theater. I personally have done this, and I can say that all the large-format IMAX shots, so nicely interlaced with standard letterboxed picture, take the experience to a whole new level that is well worth it! Enjoy!

Justin Rule is SCI's Chief IMAX Projectionist.

Category: IMAX