Jack Brown’s dad had a knack for building things, and his neighbor had a giant antenna for HAM radio operation. It was the Sputnik satellite era—technology was “the thing” in the late 1950s, Brown said—and Brown and his dad would build radios and other electronics for fun.
“I never stopped doing that kind of stuff, and I just was intrigued by the whole idea of, what can you do without spending a lot of money [using] everyday materials to replicate what early scientists did in late 1700s, early 1800s,” Brown said.
The 73-year-old Westerville resident took that childhood hobby and turned it into a retirement “profession” by volunteering his time with Westerville schools and libraries, giving presentations and guiding projects about science. Brown estimates he’s brought science activities to 15 classrooms total, with some recurring visits, and teaches five programs per week to school-age kids on top of advising a local robot club.
“The problem with science education is that as kids pursue it, things get harder as you get more advanced classes, and there’s some math requirements and so forth. But every little kid is interested in science and art, for example, but they often lose interest,” Brown said. “So that’s kind of my goal, is to stimulate that interest and try to move it up the age spectrum.”
Brown wasn’t exactly a scientist in his professional life; he studied community analysis at Ohio State in the ’60s, and in his last job before retirement, he worked as a statistical analyst forecasting house foreclosures in Loudoun County, Virginia, during the 2008 recession. Brown graduated from Walnut Ridge High School in 1965, and he moved back to Columbus after retirement to be closer to family.
In central Ohio, his hobby started inspiring kids—including Linda Amici’s fifth graders at Alcott Elementary School—with inventions like an augmented reality sandbox.
“He can’t get enough of educating students. He’s just a giver, and he’s really energized by helping the next generation to see the importance and value of science and design thinking and engineering and all mathematical concepts like that,” Amici said.
Brown visits Amici’s classroom during students’ lunch and recess hours to work with them on design and engineering projects. Amici said Brown will bring activities and tools for the kids, like a measuring contraption made of Lego and a telescope that turns black and white images into color.
Amici said Brown is also involved in the Designing Westerville project, in which students survey Westerville residents about changes they’d like to see in the community and then create and present solutions as part of the COSI Science Festival. In 2019, the students presented to more than 400 people, including city and education leaders, she said.
Brown’s role was to advise students as to whether the solutions they designed would work in practice, Amici said.
Brown also brought the Designing Westerville project to Tina Bardwell’s classroom. Bardwell, an eighth grade science teacher at Genoa Middle School, said on top of Brown pitching Designing Westerville to her five classes, he also brought lab materials to use in class and is on call to help use them.
“Something that I thought was over the top for Jack to do was, he puts his own personal cellphone (number) on materials like the virtual sandbox and a couple other lab supply things that he dropped off at my class to have educators call him at the drop of a hat to get more information, get help with the lab supplies, which is unheard of,” Bardwell said.
Brown said that although this year’s in-person Designing Westerville was canceled, he still likes to tell his wife of 51 years, Sue, about good days with the kids he teaches—these days, over video chat.
“I saw at the bottom of the screen, I would see comments like, ‘Oh, wow,’ or ‘That’s cool.’ Well, that’s pretty much why I do it,” Brown said.