Speaking of Science Column November 11, 2008

Math & Science Center makes quantum leap with new director

I retired from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1990. Audrey and I moved to Grand Junction, thinking our time would be taken up with woodturning and travel. I soon became hooked on doing science with kids, and I met a young boy named Ryan Patterson.

There began two parallel paths.

On one path, I began doing science out of the trunk of my car for classroom presentations. I found great joy in seeing the excitement of kids doing hands-on science. Out of the trunk came boxes with subjects such as electricity, magnets, sound and weather.

Oh yes, there was the bucket of soap solution, frames and straws. That was for sitting in front of a class for an hour demonstrating math and physics with soap films and bubbles.

At Appleton Elementary I was named “Mr. Bubbles.”

Working out of the trunk went on until 1998. The project was called “SITHOK,” or Science in the Hands of Kids.

On a parallel path, from the beginning, I met a young boy named Ryan Patterson who was in the third grade. His teacher said to me, “I cannot answer all his questions. Can you help me?” This began a mentorship that exists to this day. Ryan started coming to our house on Saturdays. This continued every Saturday, all day, for seven to eight years. We began with transistors in the third grade, and it was not too many years before Ryan was ahead of me.

It was such a joy for Audrey and me to have this young man in our midst. For lunch Audrey made chocolate-peanut tarts, and we had a contest to get them out without breaking the crust.

Ryan entered five state and three international science fairs. He was an award-winner every year, culminating in winning the top prize as a high school junior with his Sign Language Glove.

He attended the 2001 Nobel Awards in Stockholm, Sweden, and won the Intel Talent Search and the Siemens-Westinghouse Competition. Talk about feeling proud!

While mentoring Ryan, work began creating the Western Colorado Math & Science Center in one room at Wingate Elementary in 1998.

It was so thrilling to see kids’ excitement and enthusiasm for math and science that I began to look for more space to make it accessible to even more students. In June of 1999, with the support of District 51, we began construction of the center in the New Emerson School site. In January of 2000 we began seeing kids aged “3 to 93.” The mission statement is “Create excitement and enthusiasm for math & science.”

Since that time, the center has had more than 80,000 students, teachers and adults from a 160-mile radius.

The support of many dedicated volunteers, contributions by so many, partnerships, a great community, and Audrey, my wife of 58 years, made this possible.

The center is ready for making a quantum leap. In physics, a quantum leap is a change of an electron in an atom from one energy state to another. We have become a 501(c) 3 with a board of directors, which is helping to establish goals for the center’s future.

To carry forward with this quantum leap, it is time to bring somebody new to the leadership of the center, as I can no longer do everything that should be done for its advancement. Teresa Coons has been hired as our new director, and she will facilitate our move into new roles in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.

Teresa possesses a vision and passion to take the center to the next energy level.

I will continue with the center, building new displays, carrying out my passion of designing kits and training teachers to teach hands-on science and doing whatever I can to achieve our goals. I have a desire to do outreach in northwest Colorado and maybe have a bit more time off, even some woodturning.

After 58 years, Audrey’s honey-do list is pretty long.

John McConnell is founder/director of the Western Colorado Math & Science Center.

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