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


STEM in DSM: Collaborative program guides students from college to career

STEM in DSM: Collaborative program guides students from college to career

When Drake University sophomore Southenary Macvilay was a student at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, she developed an interest in math careers but didn’t know where to start exploring her options. Teachers encouraged Macvilay to pursue a college career, but it wasn’t until she arrived at Drake that she realized her passion for accounting.

“When I was in high school, I wasn’t even thinking, ‘What am I going to do after high school? I don’t know. Work?’ Macvilay said. “I didn’t think college was a big deal until many of my teachers started talking to me about my plans after graduation. They saw a lot of potential in me, and they started saying, ‘You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.’”

Today, Macvilay strives to instill that same sense of belief in students at Des Moines Roosevelt High School as a mentor in the new STEM Explorers program.

Three major institutions unite in pilot initiative

The cutting-edge partnership among three premier Des Moines institutions is paving the way for a new kind of student bond. Building relationships is at the core of STEM Explorers, which creates a college-to-career pathway for Des Moines high school students.

Drake students who are in high-level math majors mentor Des Moines high school students who demonstrate talent and interest in science, technology, engineering and math. The high school students will later be considered for admission to Drake.

While exploring a variety of math careers at Drake, students will receive priority consideration for paid internships at Principal Financial Group. The program culminates in priority consideration for full-time positions at The Principal after graduation from Drake.

STEM Explorers helps students navigate college-to-career path

Every other week, Macvilay and a team of STEM Explorers mentors visit Roosevelt, where they introduce students to opportunities available at Drake and encourage them to join the Bulldog family.

“We’re all there for the same reason, to tell them, ‘College is a big deal, and you should go. You are skilled and you can do it,’” Macvilay said. “That’s the most important thing, to get them there.”

Macvilay acknowledges that the path to college, much like building a mentor relationship, is a process. That’s why the STEM Explorers program is designed to support students long-term, providing guidance from high school to college all the way to the professional world.

Continued support is top priority for program mentors

A lasting bond means a greater chance high school students will complete the one-of-a-kind program.

“Over the course of two, three or four years, I think the stronger the relationship, the more goal-driven students will be and the more willing they’ll be to accomplish those goals,” Macvilay said.

The program is in its pilot year, but Macvilay said she’s already optimistic about its role as a catalyst for STEM growth in the Des Moines metro.

“I’m so excited to be in this program, honestly. I feel like this program has a lot of potential, especially for the growing city of Des Moines,” Macvilay said. “The goal of this program was to get students to go to Drake and to end up working in the city of Des Moines, to help it grow and keep it stable. Beyond that, it’ll connect people and build a bond that’s not typical.”

Category: STEM in DSM


SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know K.O. Myers

SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know K.O. Myers

For SCI volunteer K.O. Myers, the telescope isn’t solely a gateway to the galaxies… It’s a gateway to wonder and scientific literacy right here on Earth.

Though he enjoys exploring the Moon, Venus and Mars, Myers is more captivated by the "a-ha!" moments that define SCI’s Star Party experience.

“I really find it rewarding when people see something for the first time and it captures their imagination,” Myers said. “We talk about the 'a-ha!' moment. For those of us on the Star Party crew, we really get the joy of helping people have that experience.”

Those little moments of wonder ignite interest in science and motivate Myers to continue volunteering at Star Parties. He joined SCI’s volunteer team in 2012 and has honed his own astronomy skills along the way.

Myers’ Star Party specialty is the history and structure of the Moon. While he enjoys pointing out specific craters, planets and constellations, Myers’ top priority is creating a space for scientific discovery.

“Children are naturally inquisitive, and I think it’s even less about encouraging them to be interested in science but just not discouraging them. They start from a place of curiosity and wonder and interest,” Myers said. “Any opportunity we have to reinforce, encourage and nurture that is great.”

Myers said Star Parties provide the ideal opportunity for outreach, thanks to their location outside and in the community. SCI hosts Star Parties at Ewing Park in partnership with the Des Moines Astronomical Society.

Veteran astronomers and first-time star-gazers alike develop their telescope skills in the welcoming environment.

“I like the camaraderie of the small group,” Myers said. “There’s a core group of us that are really excited about the sky.”

Myers said he hopes to invite more SCI volunteers into that core group.

“If you’re looking for an experience where you’ll get to meet people who are engaged and interested and passionate about science, there’s no better way to do that than volunteer at SCI,” Myers said.


Abroad experiences provide perspective for improving public health in Iowa

Abroad experiences provide perspective for improving public health in Iowa

Marcus Barlow vividly remembers his first science experience: second-grade pig-eye dissection. Barlow marveled at the eye’s sensory power despite its small size. That moment, he realized science isn’t limited to the laboratory — it’s the guiding force in our everyday lives.

A second-grade anatomy lesson led Barlow to question everything and explore the science of his world. Volunteer experiences in Africa further strengthened his inquisitive spirit and ultimately led to a career in public health.

Though he now works as program coordinator at Integrated Health Homes at Child Health Specialty Clinics, Barlow hasn’t forgotten that formative experience at the second-grade anatomy table. Every day, he applies that same curiosity in tackling the complicated, nuanced problems facing Iowa’s public health systems.

SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

MB: My first science experience was in second grade. I can remember dissecting pig eyes, actually. I remember being captivated by the small number of parts that make up the eye and their ability to create the images we see. That was the first time I got excited about looking at things with a scientific lens and trying to understand what was happening around me.

I took more and more science classes all the way up into high school, where I can remember anatomy, again. We were dissecting cats, and in chemistry, we were taking the copper off of pennies. I learned to dig a little deeper and not just take things at the surface level. I began to ask questions, like why we can stop our car at the stoplight or why we burp and why we have hiccups. That created an idea in my head that I wanted to do something in science. I wasn’t quite sure what. On top of that, I really enjoy the social sciences as well. I enjoy people. I enjoy interacting with people. I wanted the merger of both of those things, which got me into the health sciences eventually.

SCI: Was there a specific moment you realized public health was the right field for you?

MB: It was definitely not my focus during my undergraduate studies. I didn’t know that there was a master’s of public health at all. I eventually went to study abroad in Africa for the first time, and it was in Tanzania for six months. While I was there, I was volunteering for a non-governmental organization called Guidance and Health-Based Care. I saw there were a lot of systematic problems. The Tanzanian government provides medications for people to get well, called anti-retroviral medication. But on the flipside of that, these people didn’t have enough food, and when you don’t have that food in your system, the medicine can’t do its job. So, it’s actually hurting people instead of helping them get better. There were large systematic problems in that society that created the negative health outcome.

Another experience that I had was in Downtown Denver when I volunteered for homeless youth with AmeriCorps. I saw there were a lot of problems with drug abuse, drug paraphernalia and different factors that were making the youth, first off, feel uncomfortable getting the help they needed, but also feel ashamed and criminalized because of their addictions and other problems they were facing. It really came down to the fact that they just had a terrible start to their lives that snowballed into a larger, negative health problems. Those two items kind of got me thinking, “I need to go back and take a look at these larger systems that we have in the world and why we’re seeing really bad health outcomes because of them.”

SCI: Can you describe your work as program coordinator at Integrated Health Homes at Child Health Specialty Clinics?

MB: I work on Pella Health programs, and I also work on another program that’s called the Child and Youth Health Psychiatric Consultation of Iowa. It consults with primary care physicians to provide mental healthcare. We’re making sure primary care providers are able to diagnose mental health conditions in the state of Iowa. One in five children has mental health issues in the state of Iowa, and that statistic is the same nationally. We have numerous shortages and issues in child psychiatry. We want to keep people in their homes, we want to keep them where they’re at with their primary care physicians. That is kind of what I discussed earlier with the systematic, big problems that I saw in my travels. There are really big issues here in Iowa, too. We have a lot of systems that are becoming a problem. They’re creating some hard health outcomes.

SCI: What’s one challenging aspect of working in public health?

MB: Tom Harkin has said several times that, “Public health’s greatest enemy is that when it works, you don’t hear about it.” For instance, when we don’t have a measles outbreak like we’re seeing in Germany and Florida, public health is working, but no one knows it. That is the biggest enemy of public health.  

SCI: What’s the most rewarding thing about working in public health?

MB: I think a lot of times, people seek jobs or opportunities that when you go home at the end of the day, you feel like, “You know what, today I feel like I made a difference in the world,” and I know that sounds really cliché and corny, but I really feel that way because you can see it in patient outcomes and data. For instance, I know if I am doing my job and I am making sure that everything is coordinated in the Pella Health program, I can know a child out there in Mason City or Storm Lake got the services they needed to improve their health and their lives. That’s really rewarding when you hear things like that — when you can see patients are getting the things they need. Health is so all-encompassing on quality of life.

Category: General SCI


STEM in DSM: Marine biology teacher empowers students to save the nautilus

STEM in DSM: Marine biology teacher empowers students to save the nautilus

Humid, salty air whirls with the help of an industrial fan, circulating an unusual scent for Downtown Des Moines. Clownfish crowd several tanks, their bright orange color a refreshing break from barren winter scenery.

The Central Campus Aquarium boasts a welcoming atmosphere to match its welcoming classroom environment.

Around 20 percent of students enrolled in Central Campus’ marine biology and aquarium science programs are interested in continuing their study after graduation. Greg Barord, the marine biology teacher, welcomes students of all interests by encouraging aquarium involvement customized to their skills.

Communications-savvy students manage the aquarium’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. Aspiring artists design the program’s display cases. Future marine biologists guide maintenance and conservation efforts in the one-of-a-kind aquarium.

Aquarium offers unique interactions with rare species

Central Campus is the only high school in America that features the nautilus, a species of cephalopod.

The nautilus is especially dear to Barord, who has dedicated his doctoral research to the species and its conservation. He’s in his final year of study at the City University of New York.

“It’s one of the oldest animals on the planet,” Barord said. “It’s amazing connecting this 500-year-old animal with 15- and 16-year-old students using the nautilus as a symbol of, ‘Here’s what we can do. Here’s where we can go. Here are the cool things we can do.’”

At Central Campus, the nautilus is more than a rare showpiece — it’s a call for action.

Program mobilizes students in ocean conservation, research

Whether students pursue careers in communications, art or marine biology, Barord said he hopes the Central Campus Aquarium instills in them a lifelong appreciation for the ocean.

“The students’ research is a key part of helping to save the nautilus in the wild. It’s a symbol of what we want this program to continue to do,” Barord said. “We’re one of the few facilities in the world that has nautiluses, let alone a high school.”

Students dedicate free time to aquarium care 365 days a year

Barord is quick to point out that the nautilus isn’t the aquarium’s only one-of-a-kind feature. Here at Central Campus, students volunteer their free time — up to four hours a day — to feed, clean and monitor every tank in the facility.

Caring for a state-of-the-art aquarium doesn’t abide by the school bell, but Barord said he never has trouble scheduling student volunteers after hours.

“During summer breaks and winter breaks, they’re up here volunteering. Sometimes, we have too many volunteers,” Barord said. “It’s not hard to find volunteers, especially over Christmas and New Year’s. I think that’s the cool thing about this aquarium. It is student-run.”

Global partnerships and travel opportunities enrich learning experience

Students’ dedication in the aquarium fuels learning experiences beyond Central Campus. Barord is leading an ocean ecology trip to California in March, where students will have the opportunity to apply their studies on Catalina Island.

Barord’s research takes him to the Philippines and Australia in the summer, and everywhere he goes, he encourages student collaboration.

“I travel to the Philippines and Australia in the summer and connect my students here with those students,” Barord said. “It’s more than just Iowa. It’s more than just Fiji. It’s people everywhere working together.”

Take a virtual tour of the Central Campus Aquarium.

Category: STEM in DSM


SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Dana Kirkegaard

SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Dana Kirkegaard

There’s a key component in every scientific discovery, and you won’t find it in a beaker, a graduated cylinder or even in the lab. It’s interpersonal communication, the key element for SCI volunteer Dana Kirkegaard.

For the 17-year-old aspiring chemistry major, interactions with participants and scientific concepts complete the SCI volunteer experience.

“Interacting with people is a good skill to have. If you make a discovery but can’t communicate it, what does that really mean?” Kirkegaard said.

The variety of interpersonal opportunities at SCI motivates Kirkegaard to maintain a busy volunteer schedule. From regular weekend hours to special events including Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival Jr. and Des Moines Mini Maker Faire, she meets a wide array of participants with diverse interests.

“You can tell participants here are really involved and take things away from what they learn at the Science Center of Iowa,” she said.

Though SCI is a popular destination for children, Kirkegaard said her volunteer work provides valuable opportunities to interact with adults. Whether she’s answering young participants’ questions in her favorite experience platform, When Things Get Moving, or meeting staff, Kirkegaard said SCI’s volunteer opportunities give her a new outlook.

“As a high school student, I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to work with adults. It’s a great experience,” she said. “You get to work with different people. It gives you a different perspective.”