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


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 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


Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Q&A with a food scientist: Enzymes, birthday cake and curiosity

Forget immaculately plated dishes on crisp, white dinnerware… it’s all about the perfect puree in Jennifer Jensen’s lab at the Eurofins Nutrition Analysis Center in Des Moines. Jensen, an associate scientist, tests foods for their nutritional content — a job that’s always interesting but not always pretty, she says.

SCI sat down with Jensen to learn more about life as a food scientist, and in honor of our 10th Downtown Birthday Party this Saturday, we couldn’t pass up the chance to ask an expert about the chemistry of birthday cake.

SCI: Can you describe your work as a food scientist at Eurofins?

JJ: We do nutritional testing. We test for anything that’s on a nutrition label. We test for fat content, as well as how many calories are in a certain food. We test for vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and more. There’s always something different happening. I work specifically in the enzymes department, so my department primarily tests animal food. We test how much of a certain enzyme is in the food, so an animal can digest it more easily.

SCI: Why it important to have basic knowledge of food science?

JJ: Your body is a machine, and you want to make sure your machine is running as well as it can. You want to make sure you’re putting things into your body that help it to run well. You want to look at the label and look what’s in the food you’re eating, so your body has a good balance.

SCI: We’re serving birthday cake at our 10th Downtown Birthday Party on Saturday, May 16. What can you tell us about the chemistry behind the perfect birthday cake?

JJ: Baking is a bit different than cooking in general. When you’re cooking a stew, for example, everything has a role. Each ingredient contributes a flavor. When you’re baking, you have to be a lot more careful about measuring. Every single thing you add has a specific job to do. You have to be careful that everything is in the right ratio, or your cake won’t rise correctly. Or, it could rise correctly, but if you add too much baking soda or powder, it could fall. It could rise really pretty and then all the bubbles could rise to the top, and it will fall flat like a pancake. If you use the wrong kind of flour, your cake could be too hard like a hockey puck. You have to be a little more careful when you’re baking than when you’re cooking because every ingredient has a specific role.

SCI: What are some common misconceptions you’ve experienced as a food scientist?

JJ: I get a lot of funny looks because I’m a woman. It’s not usually the first job people think that I would have. When people come through the lab, though, they’ll see quite a few women who work as chemists and food scientists. Another thing is that food science isn’t always pretty work. On a lot of TV shows, chemistry is portrayed as really clean and pretty. While it’s interesting, it’s not always all that pretty. You think about a food, and you have to mash it all up together before you can test it. When people send us food to test, we have to mix it all up so we can get accurate results from the testing. It’s interesting but not always all that pretty.

SCI: Do you have any advice for young women who are considering STEM careers?

JJ: Just do it. If you’re interested in something, go for it. Don’t let other people dampen your curiosity. Science isn’t a field that you should be afraid of or worried about. Just do it. There’s a lot of people who will help you along the way, and there’s always people you can talk to if you’re interested in it, and we’ll help you out.

Category: General SCI


Four local organizations team up to give a classic composition a modern makeover

Four local organizations team up to give a classic composition a modern makeover

In one room at the Des Moines Art Center, water swirled in recycled bottles, creating tiny tornadoes. Next door, mini meteorologists painted mini jars, each one a piece of a DIY barometer project. Down the hall, a violin solo echoed all the way to the stage, where dancers embodied spring, summer, fall and winter through a blend of ballet and modern moves.

Antonio Vivaldi’s classic composition “The Four Seasons” is getting a modern makeover, thanks to four prominent Des Moines organizations.

The Science Center of Iowa, the Des Moines Arts Center, the Des Moines Symphony and DanzArts Studio are teaming up this spring in The Four Seasons Project, an innovative showcase of science, music, dance and art presented by area students. The project culminates in a group performance and exhibition May 27-28 at the Temple for Performing Arts in Downtown Des Moines.

Project invites students to embrace new disciplines

Late last summer, the Des Moines Symphony and its partners introduced the idea for a collaborative experience that would give accomplished fine arts and science students the opportunity to share their skills and explore disciplines beyond their area of expertise.

Though each organization will contribute to the May performance in a distinct way, all four are committed to a student-driven approach, said Joshua Barlage, managing director of the Des Moines Symphony Academy. When the students from all four organizations first met in March, early nerves quickly gave way to a lively learning environment.

“‘The Four Seasons’ is the perfect catalyst piece for a cross-disciplinary learning experience,” Barlage said. “Students could learn about disciplines that may not be their primary focus. It was a great opportunity to try a new art form.”

Modern dance gives classical music a new edge

DanzArts students incorporated an unexpected art form in their interpretation of the beloved violin concertos: modern dance.

Though “The Four Seasons” was composed in 1720, studio director Paula McArthur and her students choreographed a dramatic combination of modern dance and ballet.

“This project has provided a variety of opportunities to think outside the box. How do we take a classic piece like ‘The Four Seasons’ and bring it into the 21st Century?” McArthur said. “The music really lends itself to contemporary work. When I told the dancers we’d be performing ‘The Four Seasons,’ they were surprised it wasn’t all ballet.”

SCI students demonstrate science of changing seasons

Art and nature are intertwined for the 11 students from the Science Center of Iowa. They’re designing experiments to illustrate the physical phenomena at play in the four seasons.

SCI Education Specialist Jolie Pelds is encouraging her students to journal throughout the project and capture the process.

“They each bring their own expertise,” she said. “They can learn something new and can teach other students something new.”

Performance artwork features Des Moines landmarks

The Des Moines Art Center students are creating four backdrops — one for each season — featuring four iconic Downtown Des Moines destinations: “Nomad” at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park, the State Capitol, the Crusoe Umbrella at Cowles Commons and the bridge at Gray’s Lake Park.

Runway-ready looks inspired by “The Four Seasons” will be on display in an adjoining exhibit hall during the May performance.

Michael Lane, an educator at the Des Moines Art Center, said working with each organization has changed his students’ approach to art.

“It’s been a lot of fun to work with people from different viewpoints and perspectives and experience art in new ways,” Lane said.

Don’t miss The Four Seasons Project’s final performances

Students from all four groups will present their work at The Four Seasons Project Culminating Performances Wednesday, May 27, and Thursday, May 28, at 7:30 pm at the Temple for Performing Arts in Downtown Des Moines.

The performances are free and open to the public, but registration is required. Registration forms will be available at and

Category: General SCI


Doctoral research inspires former SCI volunteer to write children’s book

Doctoral research inspires former SCI volunteer to write children’s book

Dr. Sarah Willis was browsing children’s astronomy books online and noticed a trend: Nearly every title featured the planets in our solar system — but nothing beyond. Willis turned to her doctoral dissertation for inspiration for her first children’s book, A Place in Space, an engaging literary journey of a girl and her feline friend through space.

SCI caught up with Willis, a former volunteer and current post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on her new book, her post-doctoral research and, of course, her excitement for the Hubble Space Telescope’s upcoming anniversary.

SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

SW: I would say it was just immersion. My parents and grandparents were always giving my sister and me books on science and television programs on science. We got a very technical science magazine that I always loved reading when I was a kid, even though I didn’t necessarily understand everything.

SCI: Was there a particular A-ha! moment when you realized astronomy was the right field for you?

SW: In high school, I sort of stumbled upon it because I wanted to colonize space — Mars, specifically. After reading way too much science fiction, I decided studying astronomy would be a great way to accomplish that. I eventually decided colonizing Mars might not quite happen in our lifetime, but I still thought astronomy was pretty cool.

SCI: There’s often a common misconception that a scientist is someone who wears goggles and spends the day mixing chemicals in a lab. How do you strive to go beyond that notion in your work?

SW: I’ve certainly done a lot of outreach to meet people in the community and bring a team of STEM professionals to demonstrate that scientists are real people, and we come from all kinds of different backgrounds with all kinds of different interests.

SCI: What motivated you to volunteer at SCI?

SW: A friend and I just thought it would be cool. We were both in grad school at the time, and we both started volunteering and found it was a lot of fun. We started off in exhibits. The Star Parties were just getting started when I was volunteering there, so we helped get those running. When theFacing Marstraveling exhibit arrived, I was super excited to be able to help out with it.

The Portal to the Public program was also starting while I was there. I was one of the first scientists to participate in the program. That was a really good experience.

SCI:Why is it important for children to see scientists as real people with diverse backgrounds and interests?

SW: There’s a lot of focus on trying to increase the diversity of scientists today because scientists come from many different backgrounds and have different perspectives. It’s important to get those different viewpoints in the actual scientific community. It helps us fuel creativity and understand the world around us in new ways.

SCI: Besides your formal work as a researcher, you’ve contributed to astronomy in a variety of ways, including writing a children’s book. What inspired you to take on that type of creative project?

SW: I was reading for fun, and I started thinking of ways I could make rhymes about my dissertation research I had just finished. I thought it would be fun to finish that up and illustrate it. When I was looking online, I saw there were a lot of books for kids on the planets in our solar system and very basic astronomy things, but I didn’t see a lot of things available for younger readers about anything else in our solar system.

SCI: What was it like to take your doctoral research and distill it into something that’s accessible for children?

SW: It’s something I really enjoy. Obviously, it doesn’t go into a lot of specific details of my actual research work. It uses an object I studied a lot, which is the Cat’s Paw Nebula. It’s an area where a lot of young stars are forming, and that’s what my research focuses on. It’s a really captivating object visually, and I really like the ability to play on the fact that cats are something kids can appreciate and enjoy, and you can tie that to something so abstract.

SCI: What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Place in Space?

SW: Coming up with a coherent way to try to explain the whole life cycle of a star and keep it at a level kids could understand.

SCI: The Hubble Space Telescope will celebrate its 25th anniversary on April 24. How has it impacted astronomy and STEM as a whole?

SW: Hubble has been fantastic because the images it produces are so good at providing exposure not just for astronomy but for science in general. Anyone can look at those images and see just how beautiful and amazing the universe is. When you learn about the science behind what makes those objects exist, it makes it even cooler.

Category: General SCI