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: 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


STEM in DSM: Iowa students develop custom apps for SCI

STEM in DSM: Iowa students develop custom apps for SCI

SCI is moving into the 21st Century with the help of Iowa students who, this semester, will develop a “Design Your Visit to SCI” app for Android devices.

In a world constantly buzzing with text messages, gadgetry, virtual reality and beyond, middle and high school students are already up-and-coming tech experts. HyperStream Clubs take that know-how to a new level by inviting students from across Iowa to build tech projects in an after-school setting. Each semester features a new proposal.

This semester, students will use Appinventor software to design, build and prototype an app that guides participants to the SCI attractions and features that best fit the ages and interests of their group. The project will provide an opportunity for students to work directly with a client. Then, in December, each club will present its product, and SCI staff will provide feedback before selecting a winner.

For Callanan Middle School club mentor Keith Huls, each semester-long contest is about more than crowning a winner and unveiling a new product: It’s about developing Iowa’s innovation ecosystem.

“We hope to build a strong technical foundation that keeps people in the state,” said Huls, an IT application analyst lead at Principal Financial Group. “At Principal, we want to have a deeper technical pool, and it starts with a strong technical foundation here. We are investing in the future for the state.”

That future starts with a simple model: feedback. While students may complete a classroom assignment, receive a grade and toss the finished product, HyperStream Clubs create dialogue as students collaborate with peers and clients to revise and improve projects.

Stacy Monroe, an IT application analyst senior at Principal and Huls’ co-mentor, said the SCI app will provide an opportunity for students to become user experience designers.

“This is a good opportunity for students to develop a product, get it in front of a client and say, ‘Does this make sense? Does it work like you expect it to?’ and then take it back and make changes,” Monroe said. “That’s real-world experience of what IT is.”

As co-mentors, Monroe and Huls strive to instill confidence through a guiding idea:You’realreadya tech producer.

“Students are already developing multimedia every time they use Snapchat and Instagram,” Huls said. “Technology sparks creativity. With technology, the tools are there, and the cost to get involved is typically pretty low. It gives students the confidence that they can do things, they can build apps, they can develop multimedia.”

This is the first year the Technology Association of Iowa, HyperStream’s parent organization, has partnered with a nonprofit in the community on a project inspired by all three organizations’ missions: inspiring the next generation of Iowa tech professionals.

“When the opportunity came up for us to partner with the Science Center of Iowa, it was really a perfect marriage because it fulfills our mission of doing partnerships, having real-life, project-based educational opportunities for students, and it’s a perfect way to expose students to the larger role of STEM education,” said Tyler Wyngarden, TAI director of talent development.

Category: STEM in DSM


STEM in DSM: Local scientist wins NASA Mars challenge

STEM in DSM: Local scientist wins NASA Mars challenge

Pierre Blosse is celebrating a pretty big accomplishment: Last month, the Urbandale resident was one of three winners of NASA’s Journey to Mars Challenge, which invited the public to submit ideas for developing long-term residence on the Red Planet. But there won’t be any celebratory cake just yet — an achievement like this calls for a cosmic recipe, the kind that could sustain life on Mars.

That’s what Blosse is cooking up in his research. He’s using chlorella algae, a single-source microorganism, to develop an efficient, starch-rich flour that could provide a sustainable food source for future Mars colonists.

“I thought, ‘Why not use the starch in the algae to make food since it’s so much more efficient and grows faster?’” Blosse said. “I read a lot of research articles and literature about it. I was convinced it was actually a good idea, and it was a feasible idea, so I decided to write about it.”

Blosse, who works at DuPont Pioneer, submitted a technical paper on his findings, giving NASA a license to the idea.

Though the paper focused on chlorella’s Martian viability, he isn’t overlooking the algae’s potential on Earth, too.

“It ties in with agriculture, which is something I’m interested in,” Blosse said. “It’s important to feed the world, and this is just another way to do it.”

Blosse is working with researchers at Iowa State University’s BioCentury Research Farm, where he’ll try to test and prove his idea is a viable option for feeding future Mars residents. He said he’s not counting on Mars One to make its much-hyped one-way trip to the Red Planet by the 2020 goal but expects Elon Musk’s SpaceX to visit Mars within his lifetime.

He hopes his chlorella concept eventually makes the six-month journey to Mars, too. Until then, Blosse will continue researching his recipe for long-term life on the Red Planet.

Curiosity is the key ingredient.

“For me, it’s really important to understand how things work,” he said. “I’m always trying to learn new things, not just for my job, but personally, too.”

Category: STEM in DSM


STEM in DSM: Des Moines Charity Hack pairs local nonprofits with tech professionals

STEM in DSM: Des Moines Charity Hack pairs local nonprofits with tech professionals

High-tech speed dating: That’s how the Des Moines Charity Hack begins.

The annual Des Moines Charity Hack pairs local nonprofits with groups of six to nine tech professionals. In just three days, each team of developers, managers, designers, business analysts and quality control specialists completes a project for little to no cost to the organization.

But before developers enter a line of code, before designers sketch a single concept, the tech professionals have to select one nonprofit organization’s project idea.

After briefly getting acquainted with each nonprofit organization and its proposed project, it’s time to choose. “I’ll take this project,” each professional says until all nine nonprofits have a dynamic team with diverse skills and interests.

Nine nonprofits receive much-needed tech updates

From boosting SEO firepower to upgrading a website to a responsive design, the Des Moines Charity Hack gives each nonprofit a little technical TLC.

Children & Families of Iowa (CFI), one of the nine selected organizations, turned to its tech wish list for project inspiration. Given the wide variety of programs and services offered at CFI, the nonprofit proposed a quick, optional website questionnaire that directs users to the appropriate pages based on their responses.

CFI Communications Supervisor Kelly Amenson said the survey produced at the Charity Hack has already saved the organization time and resources.

“Visitors to our website leave engaged and informed by using the user-friendly questionnaire,” Amenson said.

Animal Lifeline of Iowa (ALI), a shelter in Carlisle, was another one of the nine nonprofits selected for the event. Thanks to the Des Moines Charity Hack, the organization traded an overwhelming, outdated animal database for a new, user-friendly system.

Outreach and Event Coordinator Hannah Banes said the upgraded database has already supported ALI’s mission to find safe, loving homes for animals.

“It was truly humbling that so many people came to help a few nonprofits,” Banes said. “It was really nice to see all those developers come together and truly put their heart and soul into it for 48 hours. We really had a good time, and we look forward to applying for new projects in the future.”

Teams complete a variety of projects catered to organization’s needs

Charity Hack co-founder and co-organizer Kim Wall said the event is dedicated to supporting nonprofits’ technical resources, a key element in sustaining organization growth. 

“Typically, the money that goes to nonprofits supports their core mission and values,” Wall said. “Developing technology often gets pushed to the side, but it’s often those limited technology resources that create a hindrance for the organization.”

During this year’s Charity Hack in February, nine teams completed $100,000 in tech services.

The selected organizations pay little to nothing for their projects. And in addition to technical upgrades and support, nonprofits gain lasting connections with the Des Moines tech community.

“We’d like to host more participants next year and maintain connections with nonprofit organizations throughout the year,” Wall said. “Our vision is to connect local nonprofits with the Des Moines tech community all year and provide different kinds of support.”

Category: STEM in DSM


STEM in DSM: Astronomical organization invites the public to explore the universe

STEM in DSM: Astronomical organization invites the public to explore the universe

The Hippo Nebula. You won’t find it in the index of any science book. But for Doug Rudd, vice president of the Des Moines Astronomical Society (DMAS), it’s proof of a major scientific breakthrough: the A-ha! moment.

When Rudd visits elementary classrooms, he introduces the imaginative side of space. Before he reveals the official name of a galactic object, Rudd encourages students to create their own — including the Hippo Nebula, one second-grader’s interpretation of the Eagle Nebula.

“I said, ‘Well, what would you call it?’ She said, ‘I’d call it the Hippo Nebula!’ Then she pointed out, ‘Here’s its head, here’s its ear and here’s its tail and its legs. And look, there’s a squirrel riding on that hippo!’”

DMAS encourages beginning astronomers of all ages to own the star-gazing experience.

“I always like to encourage that when you’re looking up at the night sky, focus on what you see up there,” Rudd said. “Don’t just go by what everybody else says. Invent your own things you see in the sky. Get that imagination working.”

Engaging the imagination is key in creating interest in astronomy. That interest has benefits beyond beautiful telescope images — it fosters an advocate community for dark skies.

This week is especially important in the fight against light pollution, as astronomers across the globe celebrate International Dark Sky Week.

“Awareness of astronomy gives us more opportunities to talk about the need for dark skies,” Rudd said. “City governments and the public rarely consider the implications of big, bright lights. Without public interest in astronomy, they don’t have anything encouraging them to help manage light pollution.”

An A-ha! moment is the first step in creating that community of dark-sky advocates. DMAS engages amateur astronomers of all ages at its weekly public nights from the first Saturday in April through the last Saturday in October at Ashton Observatory in Jasper County. DMAS partners with SCI for monthly Star Party events, too.

The organization also presents astronomy lessons at area libraries, Boy Scout troop meetings and schools.

For Rudd, those lessons often transcend astronomy, igniting interest in STEM along the way. Two weeks ago, he witnessed astronomy’s inspiring power during a visit to a fourth-grade classroom.

After preparing his equipment for the presentation, a group of students returned early from lunch, and one student said to Rudd, “Oh, I don’t really like science.”

But a glimpse into the universe sparked the ultimate A-ha! moment.

“After the presentation, she walked back up to me and she said, ‘I really like science now.’ To that extent, it goes beyond just astronomy,” Rudd said. “It brings some new insight to a young mind that they hadn’t seen before, that science and astronomy can be fun and interesting.”

The Hubble Space Telescope has led the way in that mission, too, providing the public with accessible, stunning images of our solar system and even deep space.

“The biggest thing, of course, is the images Hubble takes are so accessible. NASA, of course, has its Astronomy Picture of the Day. So, over 25 years for 365 days, there are a lot of images it has showed us,” Rudd said. “Hubble has just opened up the world to our unbelievable universe.”

As Hubble and DMAS invite more people to explore the universe beyond Earth, Rudd can count on more A-ha! moments. And those epiphanies are more exciting than any discovery found in the lens of a telescope.

“That’s what I most appreciate about astronomy,” he said. “Yeah, I like to look through the telescope, but to hear the excitement in somebody’s voice that says, ‘Wow, I never thought,’ is amazing.”

Category: STEM in DSM