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  • 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.”

  • STEM in DSM: Collaborative program guides students from college to career

    When Drake University sophomore Southenary Macvilay was a student at Lincoln High School in Des Moines, she developed an interest in math careers but didn’t know where to start exploring her options. Teachers encouraged Macvilay to pursue a college career, but it wasn’t until she arrived at Drake that she realized her passion for accounting.

    “When I was in high school, I wasn’t even thinking, ‘What am I going to do after high school? I don’t know. Work?’ Macvilay said. “I didn’t think college was a big deal until many of my teachers started talking to me about my plans after graduation. They saw a lot of potential in me, and they started saying, ‘You can do this. You can do this. You can do this.’”

    Today, Macvilay strives to instill that same sense of belief in students at Des Moines Roosevelt High School as a mentor in the new STEM Explorers program.

    Three major institutions unite in pilot initiative

    The cutting-edge partnership among three premier Des Moines institutions is paving the way for a new kind of student bond. Building relationships is at the core of STEM Explorers, which creates a college-to-career pathway for Des Moines high school students.

    Drake students who are in high-level math majors mentor Des Moines high school students who demonstrate talent and interest in science, technology, engineering and math. The high school students will later be considered for admission to Drake.

    While exploring a variety of math careers at Drake, students will receive priority consideration for paid internships at Principal Financial Group. The program culminates in priority consideration for full-time positions at The Principal after graduation from Drake.

    STEM Explorers helps students navigate college-to-career path

    Every other week, Macvilay and a team of STEM Explorers mentors visit Roosevelt, where they introduce students to opportunities available at Drake and encourage them to join the Bulldog family.

    “We’re all there for the same reason, to tell them, ‘College is a big deal, and you should go. You are skilled and you can do it,’” Macvilay said. “That’s the most important thing, to get them there.”

    Macvilay acknowledges that the path to college, much like building a mentor relationship, is a process. That’s why the STEM Explorers program is designed to support students long-term, providing guidance from high school to college all the way to the professional world.

    Continued support is top priority for program mentors

    A lasting bond means a greater chance high school students will complete the one-of-a-kind program.

    “Over the course of two, three or four years, I think the stronger the relationship, the more goal-driven students will be and the more willing they’ll be to accomplish those goals,” Macvilay said.

    The program is in its pilot year, but Macvilay said she’s already optimistic about its role as a catalyst for STEM growth in the Des Moines metro.

    “I’m so excited to be in this program, honestly. I feel like this program has a lot of potential, especially for the growing city of Des Moines,” Macvilay said. “The goal of this program was to get students to go to Drake and to end up working in the city of Des Moines, to help it grow and keep it stable. Beyond that, it’ll connect people and build a bond that’s not typical.”