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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Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Star Partier Dan Chibnall

Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Star Partier Dan Chibnall

A-ha moments happen in unlikely, even faraway places — 1.2 billion kilometers away on Saturn, to be exact. As a Star Party volunteer, Dan Chibnall brings the solar system into focus for SCI participants, inviting them to experience our solar system in awe-inspiring clarity.

We sat down with Dan to discuss how he got started at SCI Star Parties, his early interest in astronomy and the search for alien life.

SCI: How long have you been volunteering at SCI?

DC: It will be four years this fall. My friend and fellow Star Partier K.O. Myers got me started. He encouraged me to come out and try a Star Party in 2012, and I fell in love right away.

SCI: What was it about Star Parties, specifically, that caught your attention?

DC: It was a combination of things. First, it's an amazing learning opportunity for kids, teenagers and adults. There's no specific audience we're gearing it toward. We want everyone to come out and learn something. Second, Star Parties remind us that you can feel joy and wonder at your natural surroundings, especially when you look up at the night sky. All good science teaching must have a dose of wonder mixed in. It brought me joy because I get to hear all the fun questions from kids and try to answer them the best I can. Plus, I get to use a pretty neat telescope to look at our solar system.

SCI: When did you first become interested in astronomy, and what piqued your interest?

DC: When I was 8, my parents gave me a book on ancient Greek myths and later that year, they gave me a small book on the planets of our solar system. I was fascinated by both and loved that astronomers had named all the planets after characters and gods from ancient myths. That was when I really started to get interested in how the planets differed from one another. Plus, the Voyager probes were still sending pictures back from the outer planets and that was exciting, too, although that was pre-internet so you had to hope you might see something on TV or in a newspaper or magazine. 

SCI: How did your educational and professional background influence your interest in astronomy?

DC: I'm a science librarian and have been collaborating with science departments for many years. So, even though I work with students and faculty in biology, chemistry and physics, I get to work astronomy and astrophysics into my conversations and lessons from time to time. The scientific method works across every one of the many fields of science, so there's always a way to use an example from astronomy to make a point or illuminate a teachable moment.

SCI: Can you describe a moment you saw a Star Party participant have an a-ha moment or make a discovery?

DC: Oh, many times! The one thing that gets people every single time is seeing the rings of Saturn through our largest telescope. Most people gasp, some laugh, some just exclaim, "Oh my goodness!" They just can't believe they're seeing something that is 1.2 billion kilometers away, and it's right there in front of their eyes. Now kids, they like the Moon quite a bit. It's bright, big and they always ask about the craters and whether there are aliens there. I tell them no, but then wink and say, "Well, we haven't found any... yet!"

SCI: Why should other astronomy enthusiasts volunteer at SCI Star Parties?

DC: There are many reasons to volunteer at Star Parties! You get to teach the public about the vast wonders of the solar system. You get to see kids and teenagers excited about seeing something they've literally never seen before. You get to work with an amazing team, full of new facts and discoveries at every party. Finally, you get to remind people that there's more to the universe than just what's happening here on Earth. It's a learning experience for everyone involved.


From common astronomical occurrences to rare cosmic phenomena, join us at Star Parties to learn about our solar system and beyond. Join SCI staff and members of the Des Moines Astronomical Society (DMAS) to take a look through high-powered telescopes and get a quick lesson on the basics of telescope operation. Guests will have the opportunity to observe celestial objects, colorful double stars and star clusters, meteor showers and more.

Star Parties are free and open to the public.

For more information on Star Parties and to view the 2016 schedule, visit


Volunteer Spotlight: SCI staff share their talents through animal rescue, theatre and more

SCI Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns snaps a picture before a day of volunteering at Krudenier Second Chance Ranch.

SCI Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns snaps a picture before a day of volunteering at Krudenier Second Chance Ranch.

In her free time, SCI Programs Coordinator and pet foster mom Bridgett Harvey transports Boston terriers to their forever homes. Though the drives can be long and the goodbyes are always tough, she takes comfort in finding new homes for pets with troubled pasts.

SCI staff volunteer for a variety of local nonprofits, sharing their time and (sometimes hidden) talents. Volunteers off all ages over diverse perspectives and support SCI’s mission through their contributions to special events, daily programming, Summer Camps and more. Staff return the favor through their own volunteer endeavors with animal rescue, theatre, education and more.

We sat down with Bridgett, Programs Coordinator Maddie Mardesen and Box Office Coordinator Stacie Stearns to learn more about their volunteer work in the Des Moines metro.

Bridgett connects pets with permanent homes

Besides sharing her home with foster dogs, Bridgett volunteers with Animal Lifeline of Iowa, where she helps cats learn to socialize and play before they meet their own forever families. An avid Maker, Bridgett shares her latest pet projects and treats at a craft show every year and donates all the proceeds to Animal Lifeline of Iowa.

“I feel passionate about that rescue, specifically, since they do a lot of good work with puppy mills and re-homing dogs that have had a hard life or have been in a cage forever and don’t know how to act like a dog again,” Bridgett said.

Maddie shines behind the scenes and on stage

She’s on stage at SCI with snakes, salamanders and, of course, our Blue-Haired Friend Stuffee. But in her spare time, Maddie works behind the scenes as a volunteer stage manager at the Des Moines Playhouse and Tallgrass Theatre Company in West Des Moines.

She’s the assistant stage manager for Tallgrass’ upcoming production of “Children of a Lesser God.”

Stacie: anthropology, animals and the Arthritis Foundation

Stacie recently took on several new volunteer projects, including National History Day in April.

An anthropology grad, she judged 6th – 8th grade history projects at the regional event sponsored by the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. With submissions ranging from websites to theatre productions to films, Stacie said she was excited to experience her first National History Day complete with a variety of projects.

“I was pretty stoked to see what the students created,” she said.

Besides volunteering at the Arthritis Walk with her family every year, Stacie also recently joined the Animal Rescue League’s volunteer program.

“I’m excited for these new adventures,” she said.


SCI's energy, special events motivate volunteer turned staff member

SCI's energy, special events motivate volunteer turned staff member

Playing-card tower expert: That was Taylor Kooker’s first title at the Science Center of Iowa. She encouraged participants to ask questions as they designed whimsical playing-card forts on her first day as a volunteer at the Des Moines Mini Maker Faire in September 2014.

“My favorite part was when I helped kids build cool, tall forts out of cards,” Kooker said. “It was fun to see what they created.”

Today, Kooker has a new title: sales associate. After volunteering at the Des Moines Mini Maker Faire and other special events, Kooker joined the SCI Box Office staff, a position she has held since June.

She initially got involved with SCI’s Volunteer Program to earn hours for her silver cord at Carlisle High School, where she graduated in May. One behind-the-scenes role led to another, giving Kooker, 17, a new perspective on all things SCI.

“When I volunteered here, I interacted with the kids in the exhibits,” Kooker said. “Now, I run group orientations, so it’s fun to see big groups of kids come in and help start their visit the right way.”

Whether she’s building the ultimate playing-card fortress or welcoming a group, Kooker said SCI’s high-energy work environment and community-focused events keep her coming back.

“Everyone is so friendly. It’s a cool place to work,” she said. “I think SCI’s events contribute a lot to the Des Moines metro.”


SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Jenni Files

SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Jenni Files

A skittish baby mouse darts from corner to corner in its enclosure in the Animal Room at the Science Center of Iowa. Jenni Files knows the routine: soothing words, gentle movements. Eventually, she guides the little guy into his temporary home, so she can clean the cage.

Every Friday morning from 7:00-8:30 am, Files volunteers in the Animal Room, meticulously cleaning and restocking 11 mice enclosures. In just six months, she has formed a connection with SCI’s mischief (that’s the word for a group of mice). 

“They’re really nice, and it’s fun being able to see some of them grow up,” Files said. “It’s fun to be able to see them since they were super tiny.”

Proud pet mother to a rabbit, two dogs and a cat, Files has always enjoyed working with animals. She shared her interest with SCI Volunteer Manager Chris Juhl, who connected her with Mark Rouw, SCI’s longtime animal specialist.

After four weeks of training, Files had established her own routine in a volunteer role that fits her passion for the community and furry friends.

“I think a lot of people have animals at home, and they are interested in animals, but I think it’s that one step of reaching out,” Files said. “Chris Juhl is so nice. Once you talk to him, he is very interested in matching your interests with what you can do as a volunteer at SCI.”

Files’ passion for animal care has eased the workload for Rouw, too. With Files there to feed and monitor the mice every Friday, Rouw’s list of weekend preparations is more manageable.

“With Jenni replacing the old mouse bedding, it really allowed me to take care of all of the other animal needs,” he said. “Another benefit of her help was it gave me a nice break from doing one of the less glamorous but very important animal jobs.”

Files isn’t too concerned about the glamour factor either. She’s busy enjoying each new milestone in the Animal Room and at SCI.

For Files, watching the mice grow from shut-eyed newborns to jumpy youngsters is a lot like watching the Science Center of Iowa evolve over the years.

“I just love the Science Center of Iowa, and I’m really happy I’ve been able to do this,” Files said. “Coming here since I was 5 or 6 and then seeing it completely transform from the old location on Grand to this location and just being a part of it and seeing it every week, I really, really like it, and I’m very blessed to be a part of it.”


SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Jim Covey

SCI Volunteer Spotlight: Get to know Jim Covey

Paper rockets fill a cardboard box, each one distinct in its design. Some lack a nose cone, the pointed tip that guides a rocket through the air. Some have multiple fins. Some have no fins.

Whatever its design quirks, each rocket is an invitation for SCI volunteer Jim Covey to say, “Let’s do a science experiment!”

As Covey demonstrates his time-tested rocket design — one he spent two years perfecting — he encourages participants to question, hypothesize and most importantly, experiment.

While there’s a “Wow!” factor in building a high-flying rocket, Covey’s goal isn’t to build a dream machine every try.

“It’s not necessarily the best rocket every time,” Covey said. “It’s about the process of teaching participants along the way.”

Covey’s career as an SCI volunteer and resident rocket expert started in 2005. He quickly found a home at the rocket table, honing his building technique over the next two years.

Along the way, Covey has built lasting relationships with participants of all ages, interests and skill levels. Whether he’s engaging university astrophysics students, families or elementary school groups, Covey targets the conversation with the “why” in mind.

“Which rocket will fly farther?” he’ll ask, inspiring participants to test their inventions and own the experience. And though he’s already honed his own design, Covey returns to When Things Get Moving every Tuesday with his box of rockets and a curious attitude.

“The joy of the participants as they watch a rocket fly… That’s a reward for me,” Covey said. “Those are the things that keep me coming back.”