GRAND JUNCTION — Gears are whirring. Bells are dinging. Levers are snapping. Air is whooshing through pressure tubes. Plastic bottle “rockets” are blasting off. Bubbles are piling up. And magnets are doing their push-pull thing in every which way at the Eureka! McConnell Science Museum.
Kiddos dart from display to display taking it all in with busy little fingers just itching to grab on to every moving widget, gadget and gizmo — as it is meant to be.
In the middle of the ruckus, the center’s 92-year-old namesake taps around with a sturdy walking stick that, not surprisingly, has a compass embedded in the top. He stands out in his signature crisp chinos and button-down shirt with an ungeeky single pen in the pocket. His shoes are cushy, slip-on sneakers meant to work well with the app on the phone in his pocket that monitors his stability as he walks. It informs him that he needs to watch his ambulation. Today is a bit of a tippy day.
But that doesn’t slow down McConnell. He wades into a scrum of kids pouring in the front door of the center and asks, “Hey, do you want to see something neat?” before guiding them over to one of his favorite exhibits.
Using air pressure to blow up and then shrink a marshmallow and a squiggle of whipped cream is neat. The kids’ eyes grow wide, and they slap hands over their faces in surprise. McConnell’s giggle is as full of high-pitched glee as theirs.
All this is coming from a retired physicist who was once responsible for keeping the injectors humming on a huge particle accelerator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. That was before he stumbled into his retirement role as Mr. Bubbles, as some kids call him.
For the past 33 years, he has been mentoring aspiring young scientists, and sparking interest in those without a scientific bent, by dreaming up and building displays that have to meet two criteria: They must accurately demonstrate a scientific principle, and they must have a wow factor.
“All the time I am thinking about how I can bring these things down to a kid level so that they can understand it,” McConnell explains.
McConnell thought he was leaving physics and all its electromagnetism and nuclear isotopes behind when he and his late wife, Audrey, moved to Grand Junction in 1990. He designed their retirement home with a woodworking shop in the middle so he could turn out wooden bowls, boxes and other crafts.
That idea was blown apart after a neighbor asked McConnell if he might help out a few kids struggling with science at a nearby school. McConnell thought, “Why not?”
By his latest count, McConnell has worked with more than 120,000 kids — one on one, in classrooms, in gymnasiums and in an early version of Eureka!
For years, he hauled contraptions around to schools in the trunk of his car. He did so much of that, in 2000 a school administrator offered him a 6,000-square-foot space in an old school building that became the Western Colorado Math & Science Center.
That center became so popular that Colorado Mesa University took notice and in 2018, added Eureka! to its new engineering building. The center has turned into a unique youngster hub. Besides its drop-in museum, Eureka! offers classes, camps, day care, and school outreach sessions. A minibus called AmiGo takes Eureka! science to underserved areas. All of the programs hew to McConnell’s principle that science must be a hands-on learning experience.
“He’s been pumping out things like crazy. It’s pretty impressive what a fountain of ideas he is. He’s got five ideas at any given time,” says Briana Board, the program director for the center as she and McConnell watch little ones zeroed in on rolling a ball up a sloped curve.
A teacher visiting Eureka! from the North Fork Valley weaves through Brachistochrone and Lenz’s law displays and makes a beeline for McConnell.
“I can’t believe it. It is the John McConnell,” gushes Tricia Tittle, who couldn’t be more pleased than if she had run into a rock star. She poses for a photo with him.
The John McConnell says the science center still boggles his not easily boggled mind five years after it opened its doors.
“I walk in here and I think, ‘How did this happen?’” McConnell says before he ducks into a human-scale kaleidoscope and waggles his arms about in front of the mirrors with a gaggle of equally exuberant kids. He built that kaleidoscope.
The man who used to tend to injectors that fired up 750,000 volts of isotope-separating electricity, now gets a charge out of placing a clear plastic lid over a scattering of oatmeal or Cheerios and rubbing the lid briskly with a wool cloth to make the cereal pieces dance. It’s a basic reordering of electrons and protons, he points out.
A circuitous route to science
McConnell’s earliest goal in life had little to do with science — at least, in the academic sense. He wanted to be a farmer in an out-of-the-way corner of Nebraska.
He was born in 1930 to a single mother in Brownville, a town along the Missouri River that he proudly points out was had hopes of being the capital of the Cornhusker state. It is now listed as a “village” of about 142.
He was raised by his grandparents on their farm near the larger town of Humboldt, where he could attend a one-room schoolhouse that featured a coal stove for heat and lanterns for light. The curriculum didn’t stray from the three R’s. There were no science classes.
McConnell went to a trade school following his Humboldt education and learned to be an electrician. The economy at the time dictated that he would need a job off the farm. He worked in that trade in Cañon City before joining the Air Force.
The next jig-jog in his life was serendipitous. He was tasked with upkeep of the transmission system for a local radio station in Topeka, Kansas. But what he remembers most fondly was the 80-year-old announcer named Olaf and the country bands that used to play live in the studio. It may have helped hone his showmanship.
One of the studio guests — the president of Washburn University in Topeka — nudged McConnell into higher education. He graduated from Washburn with a degree in physics and went to work for the Ames National Laboratory in Ames, Iowa. He transferred to Los Alamos in New Mexico.
By then, McConnell had also learned about the law of attraction. He went on a blind date with a girl named Audrey. She became his wife and his sidekick in his science education endeavors for 71 years. Audrey died last fall.
The couple had one son, who is now 70. No surprise here: He is a retired statistician for a chemical company that builds hydrostatic transmissions. He texts his dad every night to check on him.
Influence spans generations
McConnell says the chance to work with many, many children is intoxicating. The kids have been like magnets. They have exerted a pull on him that has never let go.
When John and Audrey were both 80 and the math and science center was humming along with a hired director, instead of finally taking it easy for retirement they once again started loading their car trunk with air cannons, bins of electronic parts and bubble buckets and heading out around the Western Slope. In classrooms and gymnasiums from Nucla to Paonia, they wowed kids using things as simple as Alka-Seltzer tablets to blow the lids off film canisters.
Now, McConnell’s life work (at least the retired part of life) is one of Grand Junction’s most popular attractions.
Eureka! has branched out into all facets of science. It contains snake and lizard tanks, an underground “mine” exhibit, a section devoted to the human body and a huge centerpiece water tank that demonstrates how water flows and is moved around the Grand Valley.
McConnell’s gee-whiz demos are spread throughout the museum — tubes and marbles that demonstrate Lenz’s law of magnetic attraction, a tube and wire display that showcases the principle of magnetic induction by turning on a light, the Brachistochrone which shows the difference in geometric curves, and the air pressure vacuum that lets kids see how elevation changes affect their bodies.
University engineering students can take all this in from a second-story glassed lounge area that allows them to peer into the science center and remember how much fun science can be. University students are among the 40 regular volunteers who keep the center humming.
One of McConnell’s former mentees calls Eureka! “a unicorn.”
“It is so much different than other science museums you find,” Ryan Patterson says.
McConnell’s book, which is as much about Patterson as it is about himself, is titled “SITHOK — Science in the Hands of Kids.” The book is stacked near the front entrance of Eureka! while his car with a SITHOK license plate is parked in the back.
Photos of McConnell and Patterson are displayed on one wall. There is also a curious-looking golf glove nearby, a tiny circuit board attached to the back.
The glove, used to translate the movements of the American Sign Language alphabet to a tiny display screen, was one the many winning science projects that Patterson developed under the tutelage of McConnell.
Patterson was a stymied third grader when McConnell began mentoring him in 1992. He hated school and only wanted to stay home and build robots. As a toddler, he had carried around and slept with an extension cord instead of a blankie.
Patterson’s mother had heard about McConnell’s work with kids and she contacted him, begging for help for her precocious son. McConnell started spending every Saturday with Patterson. The two meshed like protons and electrons. Within two years, Patterson was building circuit boards.
He went on to clean up in most of the science fairs he entered, culminating in a first place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for his glove when he was a senior in high school. The Intel competition is considered to be the equivalent of a junior Nobel Prize.
The McConnells were with him every step of the way. John would travel with him to fairs and Audrey would alter and iron his clothes to make sure he looked like a respectable young scientist.
By middle school, Patterson had surpassed what McConnell could teach him in the scientific realm.
But Patterson says McConnell taught him many other things. One was that there was nothing he couldn’t do.
“The most important thing he taught me was how to figure things out,” says Patterson, who now lives near Denver in a showcase home he figured out how to design and build for his family.
Patterson works from that home running a company he owns that, in its simplest possible explanation, fixes electronic problems in the aerospace world. One of his biggest clients is Lockheed Martin, where he consults on electronics in spacecraft. He also works part-time with a Silicon Valley startup that uses drones to deliver medical supplies in Africa and is expanding into other types of deliveries around the world.
Patterson says McConnell also taught him self-confidence, public speaking skills, how to be a gentleman and the importance of volunteering.
Patterson will be 40 soon and he continues to serve, as he has for years, on the executive boards for the state and international science fairs.
“John is just a selfless person and I hope that has rubbed off on me,” Patterson says.
McConnell mentored some other notable young aspiring scientists that he writes about in “SITHOK.”
One of them, Derek Vigil, said in his valedictorian speech in 2004 that the most important person in his life was John McConnell. McConnell nearly missed hearing that because he was late to the ceremony; he had been doing demonstrations with a group of kids. He got there just in time to get all choked up as he listened from outside a fence.
Endless to-do list
McConnell does much of his work nowadays in a cluttered home office where the walls are plastered with more than three dozen plaques and proclamations in his honor. Audrey smiles up from his computer mouse pad.
McConnell sleeps in a lounge chair in the same place Audrey’s hospital bed once sat. He wakes up every morning to the same stunning view of the Colorado National Monument that she enjoyed in her last days.
When Audrey was ill for her last three years and needed John’s care, that was one of the few times that he stayed away from his science lessons. He managed to work through most of his own bout of lung cancer and a melanoma that left him with a shiny patch of grafted skin on top of his head.
In his favorite room at home, a workshop between his garage and living quarters, he waves a pink piece of notebook paper to illustrate what keeps him going. The lengthy to-do list spells out all things to be made or repaired at Eureka! — magnetic rocket, air cannon, dancing Cheerios, laser in water, airfoil, globe magnetic field … and on and on.
He also fondly pats a stack of materials ready to box up and send off to an old friend back in Nebraska. Retired schoolteacher Harriet Leech, 96, has asked him to send her some science demonstrations that she can do with her fellow assisted living center residents.
That tickles McConnell to no end.
“Isn’t that just great?” he says as his eyes twinkle just like they do when he wows kids with an electric charge that makes their hair stand up.
It’s obvious that the wheels are turning. Just think, his expression says, there are so many things to demonstrate to an older crowd in assisted living centers. It’s not just kids who can get joy from hands-on science.
CORRECTION: This story was updated Sept. 18, 2023, at 8:27 p.m. to correct the spelling of Derek Vigil’s first name.