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Hands-On Experiments Impress Young Scientists

Fewer American students these days are choosing a career in the sciences. One way to change that, according to a dedicated volunteer, is to get them excited about science as youngsters.

At a Denver elementary school, dozens of kids ranging in age from five to eight sit at several large tables, intent on the white-haired man at the front of the room. He holds up a clear plastic plate as he announces, "We're going to see if we can charge things up a little bit. So we're going to give you a little bit, some cereal, and we're going to put the cereal on the table, and we're going to cover up the cereal with the plate, and then you're going to hold the plate down and rub like crazy and see what happens."

John McConnell helps the teachers pass out small handfuls of toasted whole-grain "O's," transparent plates and soft squares of cloth. As the adults urge them to "Rub, rub! Fast and furious!", each child rubs a cloth on an upside-down plate.

Trapped under the plates, the cereal bits dance, prompted a chorus of laughter from the kids. "They're floating!" one girl exclaims. "Holy cow!" yells another.

The teachers clap for quiet, and the retired physicist explains that Cheerios dance because of static electricity. "When we rub the top of that plate, it charges up to be plus," McConnell says. "One end of that cereal becomes minus, and a minus and the plus get attracted, so it wants to come to the top. We're going to change from Cheerios to Rice Crispies. Now, do you think those Rice Crispies are going to come up easier or harder?"

The kids guess, harder, and McConnell urges them to test out their hypothesis. After the students repeat their experiment with grains of puffed rice under their plates, McConnell asks, "Did they come up easier?"

The kids report that they did, and that leads to a discussion of how the weight of an object affects the attraction of static electricity.

A teacher says these hands-on lessons ignite her students' curiosity, so they're eager to learn more. "Now we can go back and then the kids can write about it and draw about it and we can add some [related lessons] for next week."

General education teachers seldom receive training in science, let alone hands-on experiments, so John McConnell would like more retired scientists to join him as a mentor, not just in the classroom, but individually.

McConnell gives special time to a 7-year-old boy named Cole. "He's a kid going into the second grade," he says, adding, "he's starting to wire individual circuits in second grade."

Cole says, modestly, "I can fix most everything, because if there's like a food processor broken, I have a motor to put back in it, or I have another switch for it." He has many projects up ahead. "I want to be making like hard drives, MP3s, jukeboxes, touch screens. I'm starting a hot tub with the heater built right into it."

McConnell says it's great to see that sort of inventiveness in kids, and stresses, "we need to encourage it." But Cole says that school can have the opposite effect on him. "I just don't get to invent," he explains. But he brightens up talking about John McConnell. "He's just really into science, like me." McConnell asks, "So we just share, don't we?" and Cole responds, "Yeah. It's just all fun."

Sometimes, McConnell spends a full day with Cole, talking, tinkering, doing science. The retired physicist knows this attention can pay off. For nearly a decade, McConnell and his wife, Audrey mentored another talented child. By the time Ryan Patterson finished high school, he had earned $400,000 in scholarships, plus recognition as one of the top young inventors in the nation.

Ryan recalls his final high school competition. "I ended up winning first place, and John had a tear in his eye. At that moment, so many things clicked about how good a relationship it had been." Recently graduated from college, Ryan still stays in close contact with the McConnells, calling them his third set of grandparents.

McConnell says forming those relationships is an added benefit of helping kids learn science. "It's been for Audrey and [me], the most exciting part of our lives."

Back at the elementary school, McConnell tells the students, "Always remember my motto all the time: math and science are cool!" Encouraged by their teachers, the kids echo the motto.

In addition to teaching in classes and one-on-one, John McConnell directs a science center in his hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado. He and dozens of other retirees he trained, volunteer their time to introduce more than 1,000 children every month to the excitement of hands-on science.