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.

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SCI exhibit inspires award-winning fashion design

SCI exhibit inspires award-winning fashion design

Paper plates transformed into planets. CD shards transformed into bright stars. Hanging lights transformed into glittery constellations.

For a class of juniors and seniors at Lincoln High School, unconventional thinking and unconventional materials transformed into an award-winning dress design, inspired by SCI’s Why The Sky? experience platform.

“When I first heard about the project, I was excited because we got to work together and do something that we constructed in so many different ways with so many possibilities,” said senior Elia Juarez, director of the Lincoln fashion show.

Tia Wilson’s sewing class entered a DMACC fashion design contest this spring. The group had just one week to design and create a dress with SCI in mind. Per her students’ competitive nature, Wilson suggested they visit SCI, rather than just look at pictures of exhibits.

The group gravitated to Why The Sky?, focusing on the Mars rover replica and constellations, in particular. When they got back to the classroom, each student did a sketch of the dress. Students combined their ideas into a single piece and got to work… They had just four days to sew the finished product, after all.

“We had to use recyclable materials when we were making it, so we used paper plates,” said senior Allison Esle. “We didn’t really know how we were going to get them to stick on, so we tried to hand sew them. The plates ripped a little. We tried to hot glue them. That was probably the hardest part.”

Halfway through the week, the dress design had fallen away from its original inspiration at SCI, so Wilson helped her students refocus the piece without starting over.

Scientific discoveries, like the dress, require unconventional materials and unconventional thinking.

“I said, ‘Well, we can’t start from scratch, so how can we use what we already have to make it different?’”

Junior Binti Mohamed said she and her classmates weren’t sure if the dress would turn out as they had planned, especially after their midweek redesign, but the final piece surprised them.

“It was really awesome,” Mohamed said. “It didn’t always look like it was going to turn out well, but it did.”

The dress won the contest and was showcased in the DMACC Fashion Show on Friday, April 14. Juarez, the director of the fashion show, said she enjoyed seeing the dress inspire others at the event.

“I think just the most rewarding thing is being able to work with other people and see our creation out there and see other people looking at it and taking away whatever they want from it,” she said.

The Science Center of Iowa’s Make@SCI initiative encourages people of all ages to be makers and use familiar objects in unfamiliar ways. Making empowers children and adults alike to reimagine everyday materials and inspire the next generation of STEM professionals.

Category: STEM in DSM


STEM in DSM: Principal Park and the Pythagorean Theorem

STEM in DSM: Principal Park and the Pythagorean Theorem

Lines and figures dart from home plate, but they’re not plans for a winning play at Principal Park… They’re plans for every angle of an official baseball field, down to every last angle.

Casey Scheidel, business/project manager at Iowa Cubs Sports Turf Management, peels away the layers of a proposed baseball and softball complex in Anamosa, Iowa. Each blueprint page reveals a single element of a regulation field: the distance from home plate to the bases, the elevation of the mound, the watering radius of each sprinkler.

Geometry — and in particular, the Pythagorean Theorem — informs every element of your ballpark experience. Here are a few examples of the geometry of baseball in action:


  • It all starts at home plate. A surveyor determines the latitude and longitude of home plate, and the position of every other element of the field is based on its location. Home plate is 60 feet, 6 inches from the center of the pitcher’s mound.
  • Laser focus. Surveyors and engineers use software and GPS technology to exact the measurements of every point on the field.
  • Sun in your eyes? It’s for the batter’s sake. Major League Baseball stadiums are positioned based on sun angles, so the batter never looks directly into the sun.Pitch perfect. The perfect pitching mound increases in height one inch per foot.
  • Flattening the field can take days. Field elevation can’t change more than a quarter-inch over 25 square feet… And it can take the tractor up to two days to grade it, roll it and grade it again.
  • High-tech homeruns. Surveyors use CAD, computer aided drafting, to map the latitude and longitude of every point on the field, including the location of each fencepost.
  • Geometric grass. The signature crisscrosses, swirls and circles in the turf serve no purpose beyond beautifying the field… But geometry is key in their creation. The I-Cubs’ turf crew carefully lines up its mowers with the foul line and bases — and it can take five days to define a design on the field.

Experience the angles, lines and symmetry of your everyday world at the ballpark AND at SCI!

Iowa Cubs opening day is April 7. As you munch on peanuts and Cracker Jacks, imagine the now-invisible lines that helped create your favorite ballpark moments. Then, schedule a trip to SCI, where you can get moving with math in Geometry Playground, featuring a 10-foot climbing structure, Anamorphic Hopscotch and the Geometry Garden!

Category: STEM in DSM


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


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


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