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SCI 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 of all ages come to explore science and technology.

To continue the learning outside our building, we bring 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, in-depth information about science events and STEM connections in the Des Moines area.

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  • Meet Our Maker: Madelaine Thomas

    Meet Madelaine, one of our resident Makers with a background in education. Madelaine sat down with us to talk about the day in the life of a Maker, what she was surprised about when starting at SCI and her favorite projects for the Summer of Making.This interview was edited to make it more concise and clarified.

    SCI: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got started at the Science Center?

    Madelaine: I graduated from Iowa State with a degree in Elementary Education last December. I subbed and worked in Des Moines Public Schools. I accepted a teaching job for next year, but it doesn’t start until August. I started looking for opportunities this summer to work with kids, but I didn’t want to have to worry about taking control of a classroom. Being a Maker is a great option for that!

    SCI: You still get to educate people about making, but you don’t have the pressure of being in charge of a classroom.

    Madelaine: Exactly. While I was student teaching, I did a special science program called “Trinect.” It focused on better science instruction in the classroom. Because it was so fresh in my brain, I thought working at the Science Center of Iowa would help me continue to grow.

    SCI: What got you interested in the world of making?

    Madelaine: When I first applied at the science center, I didn’t have the chance to apply for the Maker position. I was applying to help with the outreach programs, which I thought would be an interesting way to get involved in science and still work with children. In the interview, Ellie (https://www.sciowa.org/about-sci/sci-blog/make-sci/meet-our-maker-ellie-willhoit/) described the Maker job to me, and because I’ve always been a creative person, I went for it. I love to make things outside of work.

    SCI: What types of things have you made?

    Madelaine: My mom is a big quilter, so I make a lot of things with fabric. I also led a sewing camp for kids a few summers ago, which is one of the most fun things I’ve done.

    SCI:  That’s awesome! Creating things is always a lot of fun. Can you describe the day-to-day life as a Maker?

    Madelaine: I start off in the morning by getting my bearings. I see what we have planned for the day. I also get out on the floor and do Tool Time shifts in the Maker Studio early in the day when I get the chance. This lets me interact with curious participants. After that, I start prepping for Studio Time, which means gathering materials, making sure we have examples and seeing if there’s any way we can improve what we did the day before. I sit down for lunch, and then I hop into the Studio Time sessions from 1:00- 3:00 PM. In the afternoon, I spend my time collecting data of how Studio Time went and to see if there’s anything we can improve.

    SCI: What do you enjoy most about your job?
    Madelaine: Each day is a different adventure. We always get to try and do stuff totally different. It’s not a dull job at all. I get to do some really cool things most people don’t get to do at their jobs. Honestly, it doesn’t feel like work at all!

    SCI: People assume you come in and do the same project every day in a week, but in reality, you’re constantly tweaking the process.

    Madelaine: Yeah, we did parachutes this week. We had some obvious successes like plastic bags which float down great. On the other hand, fabric doesn’t work so well, so we did some searching for something more aerodynamic, and we found coffee filters! All these little tweaks help it go smoother and smoother each day.

    SCI: When you started as a Maker, what surprised you about your job that you didn’t think would happen?

    Madelaine: I was very surprised at how flexible the job is in its nature. We have a lot of freedom to take an idea and run with it. For example, the Living Wall we’re putting together (see Sabrina’s interview). We started off with the concept of a living wall, and we didn’t know what that would look like. So we sat down and brainstormed. We threw out some idea until we found one that would work the best.

    SCI: What projects are you most looking forward to working on?
    Madelaine: We’re working with a camp called “Challenge Accepted,” and I think the idea we came up with is really exciting. We call it an “Instant Challenge.” We put out 3 dice. The first dice tells you the material you have to use, the second one tells you what to build, and the third one tells you the purpose that your creation has to have. For example, you might get something that tells you to build a diaper out of paper plates that makes you laugh, or build a boat out of straws that can dance. I think this will be a lot of fun, and it has a lot of room for creativity.

    SCI: That sounds like a lot of fun! How did you come up with that idea?

    Madelaine: When I was younger, I participated in this program called “Destination Imagination,” and we did a lot of instant challenges. So that’s probably where I got the idea from.

    SCI: If you’re stuck in the middle of a project, and you can’t figure out what to do next, what do you do?

    Madelaine: I’m lucky because there are so many people in this office that are full of awesome ideas, so if I’m stuck on something, I’ll usually go ask someone that’s been here a little longer than I have. For everyone else, make sure you have people around to collaborate with. I call myself a social scientist!

    SCI: What can you recommend to someone who possibly just went to a Studio Time session and wants to do more?

    Madelaine: It’s really important to just get started with something. I think people get stuck on the idea that making is just one thing, but really anyone could be a maker.  You can make with clay, paper, circuits... Making can be so many different things, so really, anyone can be a maker. Just getting started and trying something is the most important part!

    The Summer of Making will be going on throughout the summer at the Science Center of Iowa. It focuses on the maker's mindset, and the process of creation.

  • Meet Our Maker: Ellie Willhoit

    Have you ever wondered who comes up with the projects for the Summer of Making? Meet Ellie! From Studio Time to Member Family Workshops, Ellie tells us about how she got started, what she loves about her job and what aspiring Makers can do to get started.

    SCI: Can you tell us a little about your role is at the Science Center of Iowa?

    Ellie: I do a little bit of a lot of things! I started four summers ago as a Resident Maker, and I’m now the Programs Coordinator. During the school year, I work on the Programs Team and create curriculum plans for the Member Family Workshops and other programming. During the summer, I switch gears and help run the Maker program.

    SCI: What got you interested in making in the first place?

    Ellie: I think we are all makers at heart. My husband and I always liked to tinker with things. We took some time off work and helped our friends build a letterpress studio, which was a lot of fun. When I eventually saw the job posting from SCI, I jumped on it!

    SCI: What is your favorite project you’ve worked on at SCI?

    Ellie: I have a blast doing the family night workshops. This last family night, we made rubber band helicopters, which was hilarious. You give people a template for what they’re going to make, and then you let them experiment. People got really creative, and about halfway through, it was raining propellers and rubber bands from the ceiling. It was amazing, and a lot of fun!

    SCI: For people who don’t know, what are Member Family Workshops?

    Ellie: Member Family Workshops happen the second Friday of every month. It’s a night where we have $5 admission, and we stay open until 8. We have free member workshops that people can register for – you need to be a member to get into it, but it is a free perk of being a member.

    SCI: What do you think is your favorite part of your job?

    Ellie: Being out on the floor and hanging out with people! I really like seeing kids get creative with the projects we present them with. Sometimes I get surprised with the stuff they come up with.

    Studio Time is also really fun. We’ve had some great experimenters, and it’s exciting when we get kids that are comfortable working through the engineering-design cycle, and being okay with a project that doesn’t work perfectly, then tweaking it until it works the way it’s supposed to.

    SCI: That’s what makes you a good maker, right?

    Ellie: Right! Making happens when you see something that doesn’t work, and you fix it or improve it.

    SCI: Can you think of any really creative things you’ve seen in the Maker Studio?
    Ellie: There was a kid who came by Studio Time after working at our tool benches. He made a Tyrannosaurus Rex out of wooden blocks, but he built a swinging mechanism into it so his head would move. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that come out of Tool Time before! It’s great how he just took some regular tools and some screws and wood, and created an object with moving parts. I was blown away!

    SCI: Are there any projects that you haven’t been able to make work?
    Ellie: This is something I have to think pretty hard about. We did a collaborative art project last year that ended up being really challenging, but it was mostly just from a printing perspective and trying to figure out how to get it mounted the way we wanted it to. It ended up working out okay, but it kinda made me want to pull my hair out towards the end. It was a photo mosaic, so we took picture of visitors throughout the summer, and then we uploaded them and had another photo composited on top of it. All the little pictures were tinted in the right way, so when you stepped further way, the mosaic looked like something else. It was time-consuming, but we did finish it in the end!

    SCI: How do you come up with your projects?

    Ellie: It depends on the project. A lot of times, we’ll get inspiration from things online, but we’ll tweak it so it works with our program. For example, a project for Studio Time will be more open-ended so a 3-year-old and a 53-year-old will both be able to experiment with it. If we’re doing something for the summer camps, we’ll make sure it ties into the theme of the camp and is age-appropriate for our campers. Overall, it’s a mixture of Google-ing, a lot of prototyping and tons of experimenting to make our projects work.

    SCI: What do you recommend for people who want to start making?

    Ellie: Just start making things! Figure out something you’re interested in, and just try making it and see how it works. If it doesn’t work great you can try experimenting and helping it work better and do it again!

    The Summer of Making will be going on throughout the summer at the Science Center of Iowa. While you stop by to create, invent and explore, be sure to save the date on Monday, September 3 to come to our Maker Faire! The Des Moines Mini Maker Faire features dozens of exhibitors, tons of projects, games, food trucks and most importantly, fun! To learn more (or to sign up to be an exhibitor), visit http://desmoines.makerfaire.com/ , and be sure to check our social media channels for exciting news and updates!