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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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  • STEM in DSM: Students develop SCI app and a new relationship with technology

    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 Habinshuti, 18. “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, Habinshuti and DMCS juniors Kate Plagge and Catherine Gardino teamed up on the project.

    “We’ve never done app development in HyperStream. I’ve done cyber-defense. They’ve done multimedia,” Plagge, 17, 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, Plagge, Gardino and Habinshuti turned to the best teacher of all — experience.

    “We decided to stop watching the tutorials and go inside the project,” Habinshuti 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,” Habinshuti 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,” Gardino said.

    Each of those minds has big plans for the future. Gardino, 17, isn’t sure what she’s going to pursue after high school but enjoys expanding her tech know-how through HyperStream.

    Plagge plans to go into a medical field but said the programming skills gained in the club will help her no matter her career choice.

    Habinshuti 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,” Habinshuti 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, Habinshuti, Plagge and Gardino 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,” Habinshuti said. “I believe this will help me and my classmates in the future.”

  • 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.