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

Mar
14

STEM in DSM: Meet WHO meteorologist Amber Alexander

STEM in DSM: Meet WHO meteorologist Amber Alexander

For WHO Channel 13 meteorologist Amber Alexander, watching storms on the front porch of her Council Bluffs home inspired a career complete with weekly trips to the Science Center of Iowa. We sat down with Amber to discuss her path to the green screen, her lifelong Husker fandom and how she hopes to encourage future meteorologists at SCI.

SCI: What inspired you to go into meteorology?

AA: I was 11 and in sixth grade, and we were studying the basics of weather. That caught my attention, and I thought it was so cool. We were watching the news at home that night after school, and the screen said, ‘meteorologist,’ and I thought, “Wow, that’s really neat! That’s what I want to do someday.” I’ve stuck with it ever since. I grew up a huge Husker fan, so when I went to visit the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I thought, “I can’t compete with this.”

SCI: What is something aspiring meteorologists might not expect from an academic perspective?

AA: I don’t think they expect how tough the coursework is. You see meteorologists on TV every day and might not realize their whole background involves math and very tough science classes. It goes all the way through the whole calculus sequence, a statistics class, plus a differential equations class. I loved math growing up, so that wasn’t a big deal for me.

SCI: What kind of professional experience did you gain before coming to WHO-HD?

AA: By my sophomore year of college, I was practicing to be a broadcast meteorologist the green screen. I had an internship with the state climatologist my sophomore year of college. I was 19 years old, and I had my own little office. I felt so cool. I was doing basic climate work and was tracking temperature trends throughout Nebraska.

SCI: Can you describe your experience delivering the weather at the Science Center of Iowa?

AA: The first day I worked at the Science Center of Iowa was actually Noon Year’s Eve, and it was absolutely crazy, but fun. It’s always fun to see kids come up and give me a hug. They’re so sweet, and they love to learn about the weather.

SCI: How do you hope to inspire future meteorologists?

AA: One of the most rewarding parts of my job is teaching young kids, especially young girls, that they can do it if they stick with it. We all have times that we don’t think we can get through it.You just have to stick through it and try your best, and you’ll eventually get where you want to be.

Category: STEM in DSM

Feb
5

STEM mentor builds steel structures and lifelong connections

STEM mentor builds steel structures and lifelong connections

Wanti Muchtar tagged along to construction sites starting at 5 years old, following her contractor father as he directed engineers in their Indonesian town. “Count the number of bricks to the top of the building,” he would say, giving his daughter her first engineering challenges. Muchtar looked on in awe as different materials united to form towering structures.

“When I was young, I thought it was really cool because you could build things from scratch,” she said. “I started to learn how the building process works. It’s fascinating.”

Counting bricks gave way to designing efficient, effective machinery and testing a variety of materials as a senior metallurgical engineer at Vermeer in Pella, where she has worked since 2011. Metallurgical engineers separate metals from their ores and adapt their shapes and properties to suit a variety of structures.

Global experiences guide Muchtar from Indonesia to Iowa

Muchtar’s path to Pella took a global route rooted in mentorship. After completing her undergraduate studies at the University of Indonesia, the island country’s lone institution for metallurgical engineering, Muchtar worked for two years as a technical support engineer at a steel manufacturing company before realizing she wanted to pursue a graduate degree.

After all, new materials and building techniques emerge frequently in her field, providing new opportunities to redefine the maker mindset. She quit her job, moved to Tokyo and earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in metallurgical engineering.

Muchtar’s specialty is adapting steel to build better structures, but metallurgical engineers work with a variety of materials — and we’ll need more in the future.

“You have polymers, you have ceramics, a lot of materials,” she said. “In the future, we’ll need a lot more materials scientists in different fields, especially in building and making things.”

Mentorship enriches engineering career

Inspiring the next generation of engineers is about more than inviting women and girls to build amazing structures. It’s also about building up young women through mentorship. Muchtar is a mentor through Vermeer’s Women in Manufacturing group and is involved with SCI’s Girls in Science Initiative. Mentorship is a lifelong commitment for Muchtar.

While she studied in Tokyo, Muchtar saw a promising high school student start to fall behind in her STEM classes.

“When young women are struggling with STEM education, they can start to think, ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” she said.

Muchtar supported the young woman throughout her studies. Later, she asked Muchtar for her recommendation to a Ph.D. program and completed her doctoral degree.

Whether she’s working with fellow engineers at Vermeer or future engineers at SCI’s Girls in Science Festival, Muchtar works to encourage young women at every stage of STEM discovery.

“Helping aspiring STEM professionals is an important role,” she said. “You want to share your time and look at these girls and ask, ‘What can I do for them?’”

Category: STEM in DSM

Jan
5

STEM Across the State: An SCI Outreach Road Trip

STEM Across the State: An SCI Outreach Road Trip

By Rachel Braak, SCI Outreach Presenter

I like to call myself a morning person because compared to some people, I am. But 3:30 am is a little early, even for me. Luckily, I went to bed early, prepared everything the night before and hit the road right away with a fresh cup of hot chocolate in my hand. Time for a day of Outreach for the Science Center of Iowa!

I arrive at SCI early in the morning, and all I hear is the quiet hum of the building at work. As I load the van with liquid nitrogen, a tank of hydrogen and a whole box of matches, among other experiment components, I know I’m in for an exciting day. I get in the car and settle in for the three-hour drive to North Fayette Valley Community Schools.

When I arrive at the school I am greeted with smiling faces and eager questions from students in Pre-K all the way through 8th grade. “What are those balloons for?” “Are you a scientist?” My favorite question is, “Are you going to blow things up?” If I am doing our popular “Boom!” program, I happily reply, “Yes, I will be setting things on fire and there will be explosions.” Most of the time students think I am kidding. I mean, 99 percent of the time they ask that question the answer will be “no.” I love getting to tell them “yes”—their eyes light up!

I set up and am all ready for the students when they start to come in. They stare at me in my goggles and lab coat in awe. No matter their grade level, they all start guessing what I’m going to do. Throughout the show, the look of excitement in their eyes makes the early morning and long drive well worth it. From our “whoosh” bottle experiment to the fiery hydrogen balloon explosion at the end of the program, students are on the edge of their seats, answering and asking questions, learning and having fun.

Even after five shows in a row, the students’ energy is contagious. I always find myself in awe of science just as they are. I can’t wait for each experiment, even though I have done them many, many times.

As I pack up the van and prepare for another three-hour drive back, I look across the parking lot and see busloads of kids waving at me. I wave back, get in the big, green SCI van and head on my way. I’m still smiling because I know my day was well spent inspiring kids to explore the world of science.

Category: General SCI

Dec
30

STEM in DSM: Students develop SCI app and a new relationship with technology

Students Catherine, Kate and Thierry work with teacher Esther Wright on their "Design Your Visit to SCI" app project at a recent HyperStream meeting at the Des Moines Christian School.

Students Catherine, Kate and Thierry work with teacher Esther Wright on their "Design Your Visit to SCI" app project at a recent HyperStream meeting at the Des Moines Christian School.

We absentmindedly tap, touch and swipe screens every day, expecting they’ll perform the desired task without considering the intricate code that informs every action. Three Des Moines Christian School students rewired their relationship with mobile technology this semester, thanks to the 2015 statewide HyperStream Club challenge: a "Design Your Visit to SCI" app for Android devices.

"I learned how we communicate with our devices. If I click this button, my phone is going to do this. If I tap here, it’s going to shut down an app," said senior Thierry. "I’m actually telling my phone what to do. It’s amazing. It’s amazing to communicate with technology and tell it what to do."

When the Technology Association of Iowa announced this fall’s statewide HyperStream challenge, Thierry and DMCS juniors Kate and Catherine teamed up on the project.

"We’ve never done app development in HyperStream. I’ve done cyber-defense. They’ve done multimedia," Kate said. "Together, we have the skills, but we knew it would be a challenge."

The team plugged into MIT’s App Inventor software, which introduces users to programming and app creation through drag-and-drop building blocks. After weeks of brainstorming ideas, making lists and watching tutorials, the students turned to the best teacher of all — experience.

"We decided to stop watching the tutorials and go inside the project," Thierry said.

Each student took ownership of different tasks, trouble-shooting problems as a team along the way. Tasked with linking the app user’s age, interests and duration of visit into one cohesive SCI experience, the project’s complex logic proved the No. 1 obstacle.

"We spent a lot of time thinking about how everything is connected," Thierry said.

Despite the challenge of weaving together layers of data, the students’ diverse skills and tech interests created a dynamic club environment.

"It’s fun when all our minds are working together," Catherine said.

Each of those minds has big plans for the future. Catherine isn’t sure what she’s going to pursue after high school but enjoys expanding her tech know-how through HyperStream.

Kate plans to go into a medical field but said the programming skills gained in the club will help her no matter her career choice.

Thierry is interested in engineering or architecture, and HyperStream has given him a glimpse of how everyday technology functions in extraordinary, often hidden ways.

"Everything uses technology," Thierry said. "Everything has a code. Even though I’m interested in doing engineering or architecture, I’m going to need coding skills to see how things work."

Students from HyperStream clubs across the state will submit their final "Design Your Visit to SCI" apps this Friday, January 1. A panel of judges will select the winning team, and the selected app will be available for Android devices on the Google Play store.

Whether or not they win the contest, Thierry, Catherine and Kate have experienced the real-world side of software engineering, complete with a resume piece and the skills to communicate with a team and with technology beyond the classroom.

"It’s critical to know how to communicate a coding language with objects," Thierry said. "I believe this will help me and my classmates in the future."

Category: STEM in DSM

Dec
14

STEM in DSM: Taxidermist and exotic-animal owner shows off his unique collection

STEM in DSM: Taxidermist and exotic-animal owner shows off his unique collection

A Burmese python suspends from the ceiling. Half a horse skeleton hangs from a chain, its shoulder blade and back leg still missing. Black, plastic trays of bones occupy the pool table. Green felt sporadically peeks out, revealing the room’s past life as a Chicago Cubs fan cave.

Today the basement is part zoo, part taxidermy workshop and part tropical plant paradise. For its owner, Gregg Bensink of Des Moines, creativity thrives here in unexpected ways.

His latest challenge is perhaps tougher than identifying, sorting and articulating the itty-bitty bones of a sugar glider or waiting patiently for rhino dung to thaw:  “Every time I have an idea, I think, ‘Where am I gonna put it?’”

Painted neon green, Bensink’s haven is a bizarre conglomeration of places and life stages, as live plants and exotic animals from around the world coexist among skeletons and skins.

A lifelong nature enthusiast, Bensink boasts a network of zoos, exotic-pet owners and taxidermists who reach out to him when an animal passes away.

“There’s enough people I know who when something dies, they’ll give it to me if they’re not too attached to it,” he said.

When a new specimen arrives at his home, it’s a messy, gory welcome, fueled by tweezers, patience and Google as Bensink collects and cleans each bone.

He’s working on a lion right now and plans to mount its head and front claws in a fierce, ready-to-pounce pose.

Specimens rarely wind up in a single section of his basement menagerie. One snake skeleton twists its way up a tree, its dried skin on display a few feet away. Even in death, the snake has taken on new form and movement, its smooth slithering mechanism exposed in each little bone.

When the lion is fully articulated — that’s taxidermy lingo for a connected, complete specimen — it also will occupy multiple spaces in Bensink’s basement. The claws will join a glass case of big-cat specimens. A square of its coat will join a hanging mosaic of fur, hair and fleece on the wall of his workshop.

“You know when you go to Lowe’s or Home Depot or a hardware store, they have all the paint colors in a giant book?” Bensink said. “I thought, ‘I should do that with fur.’ I have grizzly bear and giraffe and Cape buffalo and zebra and mountain goat and alpaca. That’s Angora goat, and this is grizzly bear.”

Bensink’s taxidermy collection isn’t limited to large specimens. One homemade display features three grasshoppers and a beetle relaxing around a miniature table complete with tiny bottles. He plans to complete the project with insect-sized playing cards.

His specimens challenge traditional notions of life, death and dominance, inviting the past and present to interact in a space that is simultaneously jarring and beautiful. Bensink playfully challenges the human world, too.

One project features grasshoppers guiding tiny models of men and women on leashes in the grass. His title? “It’s a Human Park.”

Take a virtual tour of Bensink's basement museum.

Category: STEM in DSM