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  • 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.

  • STEM in DSM: Iowa students develop custom apps for SCI

    SCI is moving into the 21st Century with the help of Iowa students who, this semester, will develop a “Design Your Visit to SCI” app for Android devices.

    In a world constantly buzzing with text messages, gadgetry, virtual reality and beyond, middle and high school students are already up-and-coming tech experts. HyperStream Clubs take that know-how to a new level by inviting students from across Iowa to build tech projects in an after-school setting. Each semester features a new proposal.

    This semester, students will use Appinventor software to design, build and prototype an app that guides participants to the SCI attractions and features that best fit the ages and interests of their group. The project will provide an opportunity for students to work directly with a client. Then, in December, each club will present its product, and SCI staff will provide feedback before selecting a winner.

    For Callanan Middle School club mentor Keith Huls, each semester-long contest is about more than crowning a winner and unveiling a new product: It’s about developing Iowa’s innovation ecosystem.

    “We hope to build a strong technical foundation that keeps people in the state,” said Huls, an IT application analyst lead at Principal Financial Group. “At Principal, we want to have a deeper technical pool, and it starts with a strong technical foundation here. We are investing in the future for the state.”

    That future starts with a simple model: feedback. While students may complete a classroom assignment, receive a grade and toss the finished product, HyperStream Clubs create dialogue as students collaborate with peers and clients to revise and improve projects.

    Stacy Monroe, an IT application analyst senior at Principal and Huls’ co-mentor, said the SCI app will provide an opportunity for students to become user experience designers.

    “This is a good opportunity for students to develop a product, get it in front of a client and say, ‘Does this make sense? Does it work like you expect it to?’ and then take it back and make changes,” Monroe said. “That’s real-world experience of what IT is.”

    As co-mentors, Monroe and Huls strive to instill confidence through a guiding idea:You’realreadya tech producer.

    “Students are already developing multimedia every time they use Snapchat and Instagram,” Huls said. “Technology sparks creativity. With technology, the tools are there, and the cost to get involved is typically pretty low. It gives students the confidence that they can do things, they can build apps, they can develop multimedia.”

    This is the first year the Technology Association of Iowa, HyperStream’s parent organization, has partnered with a nonprofit in the community on a project inspired by all three organizations’ missions: inspiring the next generation of Iowa tech professionals.

    “When the opportunity came up for us to partner with the Science Center of Iowa, it was really a perfect marriage because it fulfills our mission of doing partnerships, having real-life, project-based educational opportunities for students, and it’s a perfect way to expose students to the larger role of STEM education,” said Tyler Wyngarden, TAI director of talent development.