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Gen ‘Y’ Asks Why Not?

January 14, 2003

How young people just like you are getting a jump-start on careers in science and engineering

What do Tiger Woods, Welsh soprano Charlotte Church, and 18-year-old Ryan Patterson, recent winner of the most prestigious science competitions in the country, have in common?

They found something they like to do, and then they got busy doing it really, really early in their careers. (How early, you ask? While most kids are mastering Dr. Seuss and playing with Star Wars action figures at the ripe age of six, Tiger was golfing with pros and scoring in the 50s, Charlotte was performing at camps and karaoke competitions, and Ryan well, Ryan was helping his dad rewire the house!)

From diapers to diodes

Ryan, who graduated in 2002 from Central High School in Grand Junction, Colo., has gotten a charge out of electronics since day one.

“It’s just part of me,” he said, when asked for the exact moment when he felt the powerful pull of electrons in his life. For as long as he can remember, the young man has been fascinated by conductors, resistors, transmitters, and anything else involved in helping those rowdy little particles get from point A to point B. When his friends were dragging security blankets at the age of three, Ryan was toddling around with an extension cord in tow. So yeah, he started early.

But starting early, as helpful as it was, isn’t the main reason behind his success. To Ryan, a key reason that he was building complex circuitry on par with college courses and winning science fair after science fair throughout high school was because of the time and guidance provided to him by a man he refers to as “my mentor” John McConnell.

Mentoring: first-hand access to a wealth of knowledge and experience

McConnell, a retired physicist who’d moved to Grand Junction from Los Alamos, New Mexico, became Ryan’s mentor at the request of Ryan’s parents and teachers, who were more than a little relieved to find someone who could help answer Ryan’s non-stop parade of questions. For seven years, from the time Ryan entered the third grade through his sophomore year, he and McConnell devoted their Saturdays all day to reading schematics and designing electronic circuits. Talk about dedicated!

“Ryan had a really long attention span, which isn’t typical for a kid that age,” remarked McConnell with unmistakable pride in his young protégé. “Focus and passion I think these are the two ingredients that helped him get so far so quickly.”

“And luck,” Ryan quickly added, the admiration mutual. “A lot of kids are interested in these kinds of topics, but can't find anyone to help them out.” McConnell now directs a math and science center for K 12 students and teachers in Grand Junction, where approximately 1,000 children take part in center activities each month.

Sign-translating glove gets ‘high-five’ from science and engineering communities

Ryan in front of his sporty red Mustang. Ryan applied his problem-solving skills to designing a glove that translates the “fingerspelled” signs of American Sign Language into letters that can be read on a computer screen or small handheld display. Among other awards, he took first-place honors at the 2001 Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition, 2001 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and 2002 Intel Science Talent Search, a competition often referred to as “the junior Nobel prize.” In addition, Forbes ASAP has named Patterson first on its High Tech Teenage All-America Team. He has been featured on Good Morning America and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, and in the New York Times and USA Today.

Ryan, who now attends the University of Colorado at Boulder, has won more than $400,000 in scholarship money for his glove. Winnings from his first science project, a robot that could get around on its own, were spent on something a little more “relevant” to a high school teen, however: a sporty red Mustang.

And what do Ryan’s friends think of all the acclaim he’s been receiving?

“When I was in middle school, they might tease me for being in the science fair or something, but now, they’re like, ‘Wow. I had no idea you did that! That’s so cool!’” said Ryan. “They treat me with respect. They know the reason that I have my car.”