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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  • Biotech teacher connects students with local STEM professionals

    When biotechnology teacher Kacia Cain invites local scientists to visit her classroom at Central Campus in Downtown Des Moines, there’s no formal lecture and most importantly, no pressure. It’s all about building lasting relationships with students through one-on-one meetings and small-group activities.

    For Cain, inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals means creating an environment where students can picture themselves as scientists — and she’s careful to point out that doesn’t always require a lab coat and goggles.

    In more than 20 years with the Des Moines Public Schools, Cain has extended her classroom far beyond Central Campus, launching partnerships with STEM professionals from Des Moines University, Kemin and more.

    SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

    KC: I always liked science and biological sciences. I’ve always been interested in animals and being outside. I seemed to be good at it, so it was always an interest to me.

    SCI: Was there a specific moment you realized biotechnology was the field for you?

    KC: I always thought it was fascinating, but when I was a teacher, what drew me to it was an opportunity for students to learn something unique and also be able to earn college credit. The convergence of those two things really led me down that pathway.

    SCI: There’s often a 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 classroom?

    KC: I try to bring STEM professionals in from the outside, so students have an opportunity to interact on different levels, whether they’re working on projects with them, or if they come in and are judges of their posters. Students can see that scientists come in all different shapes and sizes. They aren’t always in a lab wearing a lab coat. 

    SCI: In your years with the Des Moines Public Schools, how has new and emerging technology changed the learning experience?

    KC: There’s obviously been an explosion of technology. I’ve been around long enough that we didn’t even have computers in the classroom. We didn’t even have phones in our classrooms. I think it’s wonderful that we have an opportunity to give students a chance to interact with technology at such an early age, so we can have them ready to compete with suburban kids in an urban environment. Again, it gives them a chance to see the newest things that are out there in technology, whether it’s something simple like a tablet or whether we’re using thermal cyclers, and they’re amplifying DNA. Giving them that chance to have experience working with technology is helpful. I may not be the expert on the technology part of it, but I never let that hold my students back. I’m always pushing them to do more and go further.

    SCI: You’ve dedicated a lot of time throughout your career to forming relationships with local institutions like Des Moines University. How do those relationships enhance the learning experience for your students?

    KC: They’re absolutely essential. I started when I used to teach at East High School because our resources were not very big. When you’re trying to teach high-level science, and you don’t have a lot of funds, you start looking for ways you can supplement what students are learning through exposure to different companies like Des Moines University. It all started from me teaching different workshops and asking professionals if they would be interested in interacting with my students. At first, they often were not sure about interacting with high school students, but once they saw how enthusiastic the students were, they got excited about it. I rarely bring professionals in to stand in front of the class and talk to students. It’s usually in a one-on-one or small-group setting with the students. It makes the students feel more comfortable, and it makes the expert who comes in feel more comfortable. When the students get to meet professionals one-on-one and talk enthusiastically about what they do, it’s pretty amazing.

    Some of the students can then see themselves in those professions. Oftentimes afterward I’ll have to tell students, “No, this was Dr. So-And-So.” Students will respond, “Really? That’s not what they told me to call them.” That’s because they’re very comfortable with where they are and what they do. Students get to interact with amazing world experts and don’t really realize until afterwards how incredible it was to have this contact. Some of them don’t even understand until they get to college, and they’ll be talking to this person who came and spoke to them in their class, and they’ll say, “I remember that name, and that person talked to me.” It’s really neat to see that kind of experience, and it really gives them confidence to say, “I could interact with these scientists, and I felt comfortable.”

  • Meet nutrition specialist Bailey Pudenz

    When Bailey Pudenz attended freshman orientation at Iowa State University, she signed up to be a fashion merchandising and apparel major. With one glance at the course list, though, she felt anxious and inexperienced. Pudenz found comfort in an unexpected keyword: chemistry.

    On the list of courses for the food science major? Organic chemistry, biochemistry, food chemistry and more. Pudenz traded her fashion major for a food science degree, which led her to Eurofins Scientific, an international group of contract laboratories.

    Pudenz’s passion for science isn’t limited to the laboratory. She participates in SCI’s Girls in Science Initiative and presented at our 2014 Coffee & Careers event.

    SCI: What drew you to science growing up?

    BP: Science was always one of my favorite classes growing up, so it was something I always looked forward to in school. It carried through to college, and then I went into food science. That’s my degree. It blossomed from there. My mom has Celiac disease, so she can’t eat gluten. When I started college, that was when Celiac disease was getting more of a spotlight and people were finding out what it was. The gluten-free industry was getting really big. With a food science degree, you can do research and development and develop products for people who couldn’t normally eat foods like that. I always enjoyed science growing up, and with my mom having celiac disease, it gave me an outlet to go into. Plus, I’ve always loved food, I mean, who doesn’t love food?

    SCI: Was there a specific moment you realized food science was the right field for you?

    BP: When I first started at Iowa State, I wasn’t a science major. At orientation, I had signed up to be a fashion merchandising and apparel major, but I started looking at the courses I was going to take, and they were things I didn’t have any experience in, and it made me a little bit nervous. I spoke with my advisor at the time, and I really wanted to stay in the College of Human Sciences, and I fell upon food science. With my mom having celiac disease and always being interested in food and cooking and science growing up, it was a perfect fit. When I saw the list of courses for the four years, the classes made a lot more sense to me. I was much more comfortable. It’s kind of funny that seeing chemistry and organic chemistry and biochemistry and food chemistry makes you more comfortable than something else.

    SCI: What’s the most rewarding aspect of working with nutrition for you?

    BP: I really enjoy using the major and the degree that I worked for. I really enjoy the job I have now because I get to continue to learn. I learn something new every day with the regulations I read and all the changes happening. What’s really rewarding for me is learning all of this, comprehending it, understanding it and then being able to work with our clients and helping them achieve their goals with the knowledge I’ve gained.

    SCI: What’s the most challenging aspect of working with nutrition?

    BP: The same reasons that I love the job are the same reasons it sometimes frustrates me. Reading regulations isn’t the most exciting thing in the world, and they are sometimes hard to follow. They have very long sentences, which often refer back to another section, so you’re reading along, and it makes a reference that’s like two sentences long, and you have to say to yourself, “OK, I don’t need that information,” so I have to block it out and continue to read. I think one of the most difficult things is reading the regulations and comprehending them. As I’ve learned more of what to look for and how to read them, they start to make more sense.

    SCI: What motivates you to continue participating in Girls in Science events at SCI?

    BP: It’s such a fun experience every single time. It’s fun talking to girls and sharing my experiences and the challenges or triumphs I’ve had and that it can be difficult at times. At the same time, if you love to learn and love to keep growing, science can definitely provide that to you. It’s fun to watch them interact with everyone who participates and discover what their options are for when they grow up and enter the working world.

    SCI: Is there a particular piece of advice you like to offer at Girls in Science events?

    BP: Science isn’t the easiest thing for me, and that is something I always explain when I had my Coffee and Careers talk. Science isn’t necessarily easy for me to do. It challenges me every day, and I honestly don’t get everything, so you have to look to your peers and your mentors. I think showing them that it doesn’t have to be easy to enjoy it, and it’s fun to have a challenge associated with it. You can do it. You can make it through. You can learn it. When it clicks, that’s the best part of it. It’s fun relaying that to them.