Established in 1970. Reimagined in 2005. Poised for 2020 and beyond.
As we celebrate 50 years of inspiration and impact at the Science Center of Iowa, we are sharing stories and memories of how SCI was established, grew and continues to serve the next generation.
Stories will be added as we celebrate our 50th anniversary in 2020.
Founding: Originally named the Des Moines Center of Science and Industry, the science center is incorporated as a private tax-exempt corporation through efforts made by the Junior League of Des Moines. The center's mission is to "encourage the investigation of science and technology."
- A deeper look: The science center was one of the first of its kind in the nation.
- Junior League founding: "What we started has been a wonderful addition to Des Moines and the state of Iowa."
Nonprofit status: The science center is organized as a not-for-profit corporation and the Board of Trustees is formed.
Groundbreaking: A ceremony for the Des Moines Center of Science and Industry is held in June of 1969.
Opening: One of the first interactive science centers in the world, SCI is at the forefront of a new wave of learning centers featuring hands-on programs and exhibits. It opens October 17, 1970, and then-Governor Robert D. Ray hangs the 65-foot long Foucault Pendulum, which is eventually moved to and is still on display in SCI’s current building.
More than 50,000 people walk through the science center’s doors in its first year.
First traveling exhibit comes to the science center called Buckminster Fuller, named after R. Buckminster Fuller, a celebrated 20th century inventor and visionary.
Community donations: Organizations such as the Polk County Medical Auxiliary donate to the science center. The auxiliary gifts a transparent anatomical mannequin, one of the first of six anatomical mannequin exhibits in the U.S.
Camp-In program begins: The Camp-In program is established for youth, social and religious groups. Science center summer camps were originally were held offsite due to space constraints at the original building; campers would take field trips to the science center until the new building opened.
First outreach session: The science center began bringing their innovative approaches to Iowa schools, an effort that’s grown and now includes both classroom and assembly programs.
Preschool opens: The science center invites children ages 3 and 4 into its first preschool class. The preschool guides children on making discoveries about the world that surrounds them through hands-on learning.
Improvements: Construction provides better accessibility to SCI buildings, including a larger parking lot, improvements to the Windsor Gallery, an expansion of the Health Cell and new planetarium equipment.
New exhibits: New exhibits are added thanks to the John Deere Foundation, Maytag, Nikon, Northwestern Bell and Townsend Engineering.
15 years of SCI: The science center celebrates 15 years with a gala event and a robotics show.
Name change: The institution’s board changes the name to the Science Center of Iowa to recognize how it grew from a local organization into one of the state’s chief scientific and cultural resources.
Dinosaurs: Major national traveling exhibits Dinamation Dinosaurs and Light Dreams: Holography are among the first national exhibits to come to the science center. Dinosaur exhibits become among the most popular showcases at the science center.
- Memories of an exhibit builder: He wasn't an entineer or an artist, yet Jon Turner helped build some of the most iconic exhibits at the science center.
More than 100,000 people visit during the year.
First capital campaign: "85 reasons to give" launches in November 1987 with a goal of raising $2.3 million. In May of 1987, the capital drive exceeds its goal by $20,000.
Planetarium equipment arrives: On September 9, 1989, SCI opens the refurbished Sargent Space Theater with new “Digistar” planetarium equipment, the 10th installation in the world to use this computer-generated, three-dimensional technology.
Record attendance: Professor Wonder’s Mechanical Carnival breaks SCI attendance records with 108,184 admissions; 15,710 attend in-center school programs; 35,242 outreach students; 8,291 classes and camp-in participants; and 15,274 people attend additional events or meetings.
Challenger Learning Center opens: A popular NASA exhibit, middle school youth are the first to experience The N. Bernard Gussett Challenger Learning Center, featuring space simulations. It opens in April 1992 with “Rendezvous with Halley’s Comet,” the 10th installation in the nation.
- Making an impact: Tom Hutchins reflects on his path from preschool parent to board chair, building a vision and building a building.
Historic flooding destroys buildings and homes and taking lives. Flooding temporarily closing Interstate 80 and forced thousands to evacuate. The entire state was declared a disaster area.
SCI through the generations: "I loved the science center when I was a kid, and now my kids love it also.”
Innovative equipment: The science center receives a $150,000 grant from the Cowles Foundation to upgrade the center’s planetarium with state-of-the-art equipment.
SCI Expands: Celebrating its 30th year with the theme, “Celebrating our past, shaping our future,” the science center expands with a redesigned front lobby, exterior signage and banners down 45th Street. Upgrades include the Windsor Gallery and Challenger Learning Center.
Exhibits grow: For the first time, SCI hosts two traveling exhibits in both the fall and the spring – bringing even more of the world to Iowa’s backyard.
Planetarium shows: SCI introduces two new planetarium shows in one year, including one custom designed by science center staff.
The preschool expands: Two morning classes are held every day of the week, plus one afternoon class each day.
New location: SCI secures a $15 million Vision Iowa grant toward the construction of a new facility in downtown Des Moines. A new site is chosen, and $40 million is raised in less than three months.
SCI celebrates 30 years: The science center marks a milestone with the theme, “Celebrating our past, shaping our future.”
Groundbreaking: A ceremony is held at the new location in the heart of downtown at SW 4th Street and W. Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, on June 25, 2002. SCI leaders chose the location in part to be near foot traffic along Court Avenue.
Astronaut visit: Peggy Whitson visits SCI in March and speaks about her time on the International Space Station. “I think exploration is part of us,” The Des Moines Register quotes Whitson as saying.
"Building Beams and Laser Beams": The first outdoor event in downtown Des Moines includes a laser show that took place in an empty parking lot where HyVee is now located, on Court and 5th Avenues.
Construction kicks off: On October 11, 2003 crews begin building the downtown location.
Downtown move: The new SCI building, worth $61.9 million, opened its doors May 15, 2005. It’s one of only a few in the nation that feature two dome screens: An IMAX and an interactive planetarium.
The Foucault Pendulum: A centerpiece in the original building, the pendulum moves to the new building’s front lobby. It is the only exhibit that can be seen without a ticket.
1 million people: More than a million people visited the new building during its first two years downtown. It took a decade – from 1994 to 2004 – for 1.5 million people to visit the original building.
Iowa Flooding: The science center is among organizations that used sandbagging to protect its entrances. The hardest hit areas were in eastern Iowa.
Mixology starts: The science center’s popular after-hours event kicks off, featuring local bands and drinks. It signifies a shift in audience to serve young adults in addition to families and school children.
Iowan summits Mt. Everest: Charlie Wittmack became the first Iowan to summit Mt. Everest, and he shares his story at the science center.
40th anniversary: The 40th anniversary is celebrated with a gala and the exhibit, DaVinci: The Genius, one of SCI’s largest exhibits ever.
"Body Worlds: Vital": The most requested exhibition ever, Body Worlds opens on May 1, 2011 featuring preserved human bodies.
Innovation Lab: SCI receives a $225,000 award from the Microsoft Community Empowerment Fund to create a lab featuring technology and tools that inspire interest through hands-on learning in STEAM subjects, known as science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
- A safe space for relevant conversations: "Having a place where individuals feel welcome to address these difficult conversations is really important," said Renee Harmon, SCI's vice president of science and learning.
Virtual programs: SCI launches virtual programs in April 2020, just two weeks after a world health crisis closes schools, workplaces and public spaces in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. The virtual programming comes as school buildings close and parents seek educational opportunities online.
Pandemic: After a pandemic temporarily closes the science center to the public, SCI reopens following health precautions in July 2020, reinforcing how essential science is to society and the science center’s role in inspiring youth to solve the world’s next big problems.
50 years: SCI marks 50 years serving Iowa with the campaign, “Established in 1970. Reimagined in 2005. Poised for 2020 and beyond.”