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Dedicated Mentor

John McConnell inspires passion for science in his Colorado community

John McConnell

From The Ichabod - Fall 2017

It wasn’t until his late 20s that John McConnell, bs ’60, recognized his passion for science and the fulfilling work the subject could provide.

A decision to change career paths led to his enrollment at Washburn University, followed by jobs as a physicist at Iowa State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. His findings have been published more than 30 times in various journals and magazines, and his work was rewarded with an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Colorado in 2004 and the chance to carry the Olympic torch on its way to the 2002 games in Salt Lake City.

Technically, his working years ended in 1990, but McConnell has devoted his retirement to sharing his knowledge with children, ensuring they don’t have to wait until their 20s to open the doors that can be unlocked by an education in science.

“My goal is to give the kids a broader view,” he said. “They may not become scientists, but by coming to our workshops or the center, at least they have some knowledge of science so they can become a better citizen along the road, no matter what career they choose.”

Achieving that goal will be easier than ever in March 2018, when the John McConnell Math and Science Center completes its move from a 5,000 sq. foot location to a building nearly three times larger at Colorado Mesa University.

“We welcome kids from age 3 to 93,” McConnell said of the center he founded in 1999. “But now we’ll be in the university’s new engineering building, which will allow us to have college students come in and design displays and set up experiments for the kids to do. The most important thing is it gives people a chance to have more access to science.”

The fully loaded science wonderland is a far cry from the resources McConnell had in his first foray into education, when he and his wife, Audrey, traveled to local elementary schools armed only with a trunk full of science supplies.

The couple’s demonstrations were such a hit, McConnell was eventually given his own permanent space, which he developed into the Western Colorado Math and Science Center. Ten years after the center’s establishment, the board of directors changed the name to honor its founder.

Early on, McConnell had no idea how popular his lessons would become, but he knew from day one he wanted to share his knowledge, in large part because of the crucial role education played in his own career.

“I always liked science, but I didn’t start at Washburn until I was 26,” he said. “I came back to college after working as an engineer at WIBW. I couldn’t have done the things I’ve done without what I learned at Washburn. I really loved it as a school. They helped mold me. No doubt about it.”

Now, McConnell spends a majority of his time paying it forward to young minds like Ryan Patterson, a student who, as a third-grader, was more interested in working on robots than sitting idle in a classroom. For about eight years, the McConnells welcomed him into their home every Saturday for one-on-one science instruction.

Patterson accumulated nearly $500,000 in science fair prizes and made national headlines for his creation of a modified golf glove that translated sign language into text

Today, Patterson is an independent contractor designing sophisticated electronics for companies like Lockheed Martin and Zipline, a Silicon Valley-based drone manufacturer.

It’s just one example of how McConnell’s commitment to educating children is beneficial for both parties.

“From when I first started out, I got hooked on sharing with kids my love of science,” McConnell said. “The 27 years of retirement have been the best years of Audrey and my lives. We would go out to little towns on the road, she would help with whatever lesson we were doing, and kids would see us coming down the hall. They’d run up and hug us and say, ‘This is the best day of our lives.’”

John McConnell


The Ichabod Magazine Winter 2022 cover - Memorial Union with snow, pine needles in the foreground

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