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


Met Any Scientists Lately?

When you visit SCI, look for people wearing these buttons for your chance to learn from one of our Portal to the Public scientists!

When you visit SCI, look for people wearing these buttons for your chance to learn from one of our Portal to the Public scientists!

By: Sara Kobilka, SCI Guided Learning Manager

While preparing to film a video at a recent science communication workshop, I came across a number the shocked me: 83% of Americans can’t name a living scientist.

I know I live in a happy little scientific bubble known as the Science Center of Iowa, a place I like to refer to as "nerdvana," but really?? They haven’t heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall… Bill Nye the Science Guy? I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt... Perhaps they experienced performance anxiety and just couldn’t think of someone during the pressure of the moment, but this is still a disappointing figure.

As Guided Learning Manager at the Science Center of Iowa, I’m lucky enough to work with scientists on a regular basis – in fact, I consider many of them good friends – and when I speak with these scientists, I often ask them how they became interested in their chosen field. A majority of the time, they’re able to think back to an encounter with a scientist or a great science teacher. This person-to-person interaction turned them from their dreams of being a rock star or a professional baseball player to wanting to study bugs or the origins of our solar system.

Connecting scientists to the community

This June, I had the opportunity to travel with one of my coworkers to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle for training to join a new national network called Portal to the Public.

Portal to the Public was designed to help science museums around the country as they "seek to bring scientists and public audiences together in face-to-face public interactions that promote appreciation and understanding of current scientific research and its application" using "materials-based activities." Basically, this meant SCI would recruit local scientist and engineers to attend a workshop and learn how to talk about their research using hands-on activities (similar to the carting demos you see at SCI)!

It may sound simple, but this was an involved process. After selecting our first round of participants, multiple staff members mentored these scientists as they learned how to encourage people to visit their activity station, lead activities by asking questions rather than just telling people facts ("inquiry-based learning" in educator lingo) and explain their science using words and examples all of our visitor can understand. 

The training was a great success! One of the scientists, astrophysicist Sarah Willis from ISU, had a chance to try out her demo during a recent Girl Scout overnight. It was great seeing the excitement on the girls’ faces as they "made craters" in a plastic cube and looked for evidence as to which crater was the oldest and what impacted its shape. They also looked at pictures of actual craters and tested their crater knowledge.

As one of the girls left the station, she told me she wanted to study astronomy when she grew up, and I couldn’t help grinning: Science was cool, "Sarah the scientist" was the rock star (pardon the space pun) and the curiosity that drives scientists had been piqued in our young visitor. No longer would a scientist be just an old white man with crazy hair wearing a lab coat and pouring chemicals in test tubes… Each and every one of our visitors could see themselves as a scientist!

Come meet a scientist at SCI

Keep an eye out for our Portal scientists during your next visit. Perhaps you’ll meet Mohan Desari from Feed Energy and learn about the amazing power of corn. Laura Higgins from Pioneer may thrill (or scare) you with her buggy friends. And Gavin Warnock’s combination of physics and art will be sight to behold AND manipulate.

We’re so excited about this inaugural group’s success that we’re starting to plan for our second round of workshops next spring.

83% of Americans can’t name a living scientist. However, if you’re at the Science Center of Iowa at the right time, not only will you be able to NAME a scientist, but you’ll also be able to tell all your friends you met one and helped them do some really cool science!

Sara Kobilka is SCI’s Guided Learning Manager. She is in charge of camps, overnights, Portal to the Public, Café Scientifique and a litany of other programs that help inspire the next generation of scientists. Sara, a loud and proud nerd, has a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia, and an atmospheric and oceanic science degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has worked at SCI since April 2011, when she started as an Outreach Presenter.

Category: General SCI


Science on Wheels: Adventures in Outreach

Catherine, SCI's Education Coordinator, has visited 22 of Iowa's 99 counties on her Outreach adventures!

Catherine, SCI's Education Coordinator, has visited 22 of Iowa's 99 counties on her Outreach adventures!

By: Catherine Lowe, SCI Education Coordinator

Have Science. Will Travel.

Our staff loves sharing science with anyone who will listen, whether it’s engaging with a participant in the building or broadcasting facts on Twitter, each staff member expresses this crazy desire in different ways. My outlet for sharing my obsession with science is (insert fanfare here)… Outreach!

Our Outreach Team travels the state bringing live science programming to schools, libraries and organizations. I have always loved traveling, so the opportunity to see more of Iowa is pretty fantastic. My lofty goal is to see all 99 counties; I even have a little map – 22 down, 77 to go!

Whenever I explain my job, people ask if I have a favorite memory or experience, so today, I bring you my Top 5 Outreach Moments:

5. The Adventures of the STARLAB
Astronomy is a hugely popular topic with students, but since SCI’s Star Theater isn’t exactly portable, our Outreach Team uses STARLAB. Essentially, it’s a giant inflatable igloo that functions as a portable planetarium. (I also would like to note that, when rolled up in its bag, it is incredibly large, heavy and awkward, resulting in hilarity when trying to load it in and out of our van.) Once it’s set up and a class is inside, we have to turn off the lights to properly view the stars. This can be a little scary for some of our youngest participants. I’ve caused tears in only a handful of 3-year-olds, but once we address those fears and talk about how pretty the sky is, having them beg me to "TURN THE STARS BACK ON!" at the end is pretty fantastic.

4. Attack of the Dust Bunnies
During a presentation of Boom at Windsor Elementary in Des Moines, I’d just finished one of the first fire experiments when I noticed some dust bunnies had fallen on my presentation table. I didn’t really think anything of it until a few more fell, and pretty soon, everything was covered in a thin layer of dust bunnies (including me)! What was going on? The heat from the fire in my experiment had journeyed up to the ceiling and disrupted some dust bunnies hiding in the curtains. The students and teachers found it hilarious, and we had to pause for a few minutes to sweep them out of the way… and to get the rest of our giggles out.

3. The Proposal
I could write an entire blog post about the funny things I’ve heard kids say, but, someone beat me to it! For this post, I’ll just share my favorite quote. I was presenting Dream Like a Scientist at Garrett Memorial Library in Moulton, Iowa, when a young boy (about 3) suddenly blurted out, "Are you married?" I paused, trying to figure out how I should respond, and replied, "No…" (Some of the adults were chuckling.) Then he quietly said, "I want to marry you."

2. It’s a GIRL!
In a world where the stereotypical scientist is a gray-haired man in a lab coat, the fact that I’m a female often makes an impact. This summer, I was setting up my experiments at Remsen Public Library when I heard some talking at the door. Curious, I went to see who it was. Crowded around the window were four girls (ages 8-10) who, the second they saw me, became incredibly excited and kept saying, "It’s a girl! There is a girl scientist here!" They sat in the front row for the program and raised their hand to volunteer or answer questions the whole time. Afterward, one of them came up to me and told me she wanted to be a scientist; THAT is the best part of my job.

1. The Letters
After a school visit, students sometimes will send me thank you notes. These are my absolute favorite. The pictures and words they share always bring a smile to my face. This one hangs on my desk as a daily reminder that I should always think that "I’m cool."

Catherine Lowe is SCI’s Education Coordinator. As part of her job, Catherine travels the state visiting libraries, schools and communities sharing interactive science presentations. When not driving across Iowa, she works to develop new programs and exhibit guides. Catherine studied elementary education at Iowa State University. She has worked at SCI since February 2011, when she started as a Programs Presenter.

Category: General SCI


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


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