Eighth-grader Neylan Wheat participates in a demonstration last week to demonstrate how static electricity works by placing her hand on a Van de Graaff generator. The science experiment was one of several presented by John McConnell, founder of the Western Colorado Math and Science Center in Grand Junction.

Photo by Jack Weinstein

Eighth-grader Neylan Wheat participates in a demonstration last week to demonstrate how static electricity works by placing her hand on a Van de Graaff generator. The science experiment was one of several presented by John McConnell, founder of the Western Colorado Math and Science Center in Grand Junction.

Retired physicist visits Hayden Middle School, puts on experiments

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For more information about the Western Colorado Math and Science Center, visit www.sithok.org.

— After Neylan Wheat's hair stood straight up as static electricity passed through her body, the Hayden Middle School eighth-grader used one word to describe the experience.

"Awesome," she said.

Neylan was one of several middle school students last week who were able to see the effects of touching a Van de Graaff generator, which created the harmless electrostatic charge. It was one of several scientific experiments presented by John McConnell, founder of the Western Colorado Math and Science Center.

McConnell, 79, is a retired physicist. He and his wife, Audrey, visited Hayden - spending Tuesday and Wednesday at Hayden Valley Elementary School before spending the day at the middle school Thursday - to provide the students with hands-on scientific learning experiences.

Since he retired in 1990, McConnell has worked with students and teachers to provide those learning experiences. Science is underemphasized in current school curriculums, he said. He works at no charge to schools.

McConnell said the 1957 launch of the Russian satellite, Sputnik, put a scare into the U.S. To compete with the Russians, he said, many students entered science and medical fields - but that's not the case anymore.

Today, he said, the country's science education ranks 29th in the world. A 2006 study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development gave the U.S. that ranking, out of 57 countries. The international group administers the Programme for International Student Assessment and is gathering 2009 test results expected for release next year.

"We're falling so far behind," McConnell said. "If we don't do something about this, how are we going to compete in the 21st century?"

So by taking his act on the road, McConnell is trying to pique students' interest in science at an early age. He said that would encourage them to continue studying science in middle and high school and into college. McConnell said he's trying to "hook" students.

He said students get so much from interactive, hands-on experiences.

"Learning just can't be taught from books," he said.

Hayden Middle School Principal Gina Zabel acknowledged that science curriculum is not as emphasized in the state compared with reading, writing and math. Colorado tests students - as part of the Colorado Standard Assessment Program - in those subjects from third to 10th grade. Science, however, is only tested in fifth, eighth and 10th grades, making it more difficult to evaluate growth.

But she said students enjoy science, especially demonstrations like McConnell's. She said the middle school values hands-on learning in its classrooms and uses hands-on lessons regularly.

"It gets the kids fired up about science," Zabel said. "It engages all kids and all learners because it's very hands-on and very interactive."

The girls, with longer hair, proved to be better test subjects for the Van de Graff generator than the boys. McConnell said that experiment is always popular among students.

Eighth-grader Elisa Burdette, whose hair also jutted out in different directions when she participated in the experiment, said it was "rad," but that wasn't the only reason she enjoyed the experience.

"I thought it was pretty cool because we never get to do this stuff," she said.

Neylan said the advantage of Thursday's visit from McConnell was getting to participate in interactive activities.

"When we do stuff like this with science, it proves to us what (someone's) actually explaining," she said. "I think it's a lot more fun."

- To reach Jack Weinstein, call 871-4203 or e-mail jweinstein@steamboatpilot.com

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