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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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  • Doctoral research inspires former SCI volunteer to write children’s book

    Dr. Sarah Willis was browsing children’s astronomy books online and noticed a trend: Nearly every title featured the planets in our solar system — but nothing beyond. Willis turned to her doctoral dissertation for inspiration for her first children’s book, A Place in Space, an engaging literary journey of a girl and her feline friend through space.

    SCI caught up with Willis, a former volunteer and current post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, on her new book, her post-doctoral research and, of course, her excitement for the Hubble Space Telescope’s upcoming anniversary.

    SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

    SW: I would say it was just immersion. My parents and grandparents were always giving my sister and me books on science and television programs on science. We got a very technical science magazine that I always loved reading when I was a kid, even though I didn’t necessarily understand everything.

    SCI: Was there a particular A-ha! moment when you realized astronomy was the right field for you?

    SW: In high school, I sort of stumbled upon it because I wanted to colonize space — Mars, specifically. After reading way too much science fiction, I decided studying astronomy would be a great way to accomplish that. I eventually decided colonizing Mars might not quite happen in our lifetime, but I still thought astronomy was pretty cool.

    SCI: There’s often a common misconception that a scientist is someone who wears goggles and spends the day mixing chemicals in a lab. How do you strive to go beyond that notion in your work?

    SW: I’ve certainly done a lot of outreach to meet people in the community and bring a team of STEM professionals to demonstrate that scientists are real people, and we come from all kinds of different backgrounds with all kinds of different interests.

    SCI: What motivated you to volunteer at SCI?

    SW: A friend and I just thought it would be cool. We were both in grad school at the time, and we both started volunteering and found it was a lot of fun. We started off in exhibits. The Star Parties were just getting started when I was volunteering there, so we helped get those running. When theFacing Marstraveling exhibit arrived, I was super excited to be able to help out with it.

    The Portal to the Public program was also starting while I was there. I was one of the first scientists to participate in the program. That was a really good experience.

    SCI:Why is it important for children to see scientists as real people with diverse backgrounds and interests?

    SW: There’s a lot of focus on trying to increase the diversity of scientists today because scientists come from many different backgrounds and have different perspectives. It’s important to get those different viewpoints in the actual scientific community. It helps us fuel creativity and understand the world around us in new ways.

    SCI: Besides your formal work as a researcher, you’ve contributed to astronomy in a variety of ways, including writing a children’s book. What inspired you to take on that type of creative project?

    SW: I was reading for fun, and I started thinking of ways I could make rhymes about my dissertation research I had just finished. I thought it would be fun to finish that up and illustrate it. When I was looking online, I saw there were a lot of books for kids on the planets in our solar system and very basic astronomy things, but I didn’t see a lot of things available for younger readers about anything else in our solar system.

    SCI: What was it like to take your doctoral research and distill it into something that’s accessible for children?

    SW: It’s something I really enjoy. Obviously, it doesn’t go into a lot of specific details of my actual research work. It uses an object I studied a lot, which is the Cat’s Paw Nebula. It’s an area where a lot of young stars are forming, and that’s what my research focuses on. It’s a really captivating object visually, and I really like the ability to play on the fact that cats are something kids can appreciate and enjoy, and you can tie that to something so abstract.

    SCI: What was the most challenging aspect of writing A Place in Space?

    SW: Coming up with a coherent way to try to explain the whole life cycle of a star and keep it at a level kids could understand.

    SCI: The Hubble Space Telescope will celebrate its 25th anniversary on April 24. How has it impacted astronomy and STEM as a whole?

    SW: Hubble has been fantastic because the images it produces are so good at providing exposure not just for astronomy but for science in general. Anyone can look at those images and see just how beautiful and amazing the universe is. When you learn about the science behind what makes those objects exist, it makes it even cooler.

  • 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.”