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Microsoft in your community

Encouraging innovation with the Science Center of Iowa

The Science Center of Iowa (SCI) supports workforce development and economic vitality by seeding and supporting creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism. “In today’s world, innovation is imperative,” said Curt Simmons, SCI president and CEO. “Our goal with this project is to uncover the innovator in everyone.” The organization saw an opportunity to allow underserved audiences to access equipment and resources to advance learning and develop new skills.

Science Center of Iowa logo

Providing equal access to technology and learning opportunities

In early 2018, SCI received an award of $225,000 from the Microsoft Community Empowerment Fund to create a lab that provides opportunities for children, parents, and teachers to use technology to spark innovation. The SCI Innovation Lab, opened in May 2019, provides a place to host STEM classes and coding workshops and helps SCI deliver mobile classes to reach low-income students that cannot come to the center. The lab engages visitors to foster creativity, innovation, and problem-solving skills, and helps build the confidence that they are makers no matter their age or skill level. Dan Raedeker, SCI VP of Community Engagement says, “The gift that was given was fantastic, and we couldn’t have done what we’ve done so far in that space without it, but the personal and professional connections that we were able to make through this are equally as valuable.”

The SCI Innovation Lab creates opportunities for innovation to come alive by building individual skills, knowledge, and understanding of the environment around them. The lab engages visitors to foster creativity, innovation, problem solving skills, and the confidence that they are makers no matter their age or skill level while also drawing connections to STEM careers. The lab also aims to ignite interest and engagement in science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Additionally, the lab provides a model makers’ space, providing access to cutting-edge tools for design, engineering, and fabrication and works to cultivate 21st-century skills of critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, problem solving, and communication. SCI supports workforce development and economic vitality by seeding and supporting creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurialism.

Creating broader impact through workshops, camps, and field trips

The SCI Innovation Lab creates opportunities for children and adults of all ages to access technology and equipment they otherwise might not be able to afford, and to make connections with people they might not usually meet. The lab focuses on building critical thinking skills, creativity, collaboration, problem solving, and communication—skills needed to be successful in the workplace, whether as employees or entrepreneurs. Workshop topics range from sewing to robotics and virtual reality. The Innovation Lab will advance the abilities of individuals and groups of all ages and with diverse backgrounds, in an informal setting. Raedeker notes, “The parents or grandparents are just as engaged as the kids and it opens up new dialogue.”

Reaching underserved populations through partnership

SCI works with underserved populations through mobile outreach such as camps, workshops, and special events. Says Raedeker, “We have the capabilities to move the majority of the materials in the Innovation Lab to another location in the building or take it out across the state so that others have the opportunity to interact with some of those materials. We feel it’s extremely important to have a physical space but also be able to be mobile.” Students have hands-on opportunities and access to new technologies and teachers can expand their classroom resources and have skills to integrate informal learning. Community stakeholders have an opportunity to provide financial support, volunteer, and provide access to additional people or resources in the community. SCI is identifying additional schools as partners, as over 3,000 low-income students from throughout Iowa come through the center for field trips.

The goal is ultimately to engage stakeholders from all aspects of the community by providing stellar education and meeting their needs. Corporations and businesses will have access to the facility as well. Microsoft is the first corporation and contributor. Concepts have been shared with possible additional funders, but conversations related to the project are still in the infancy stage. Currently, Microsoft is actively helping to create the program and is optimistic that this project is repeatable and can be shared across similar organizations globally. “We hope the Innovation Lab is an inspiration to the next generation of creators and innovators in our midst,” said Ed Belcastro, Datacenter Operations Manager at Microsoft.