May 22, 2009
Whether it's the mysteries of the universe, the enigma of the human mind, or the intricacies of building a robot, some puzzles keep the curious coming back for more.
While it's tempting to think of education as a vocation of youth, those puzzles can be tackled at any age.
The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs graduated 1,090 students Friday. We spotlight three of the school's students - a 30-year-old who is losing his vision, a 50-year-old mom who is an ace with Legos, and an 89-year-old retired military officer who loves physics - that remind us learning should never end.
Education is much more than a degree for man
Gabe Gates, 30, is the first person in his family to go to college, and he hopes it's a legacy he can leave for the five children he's raising.
Gates grew up in Trinidad and came here to attend the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. A degenerative eye disorder is slowly stealing his eyesight.
After school he went into the construction trades like most men in his family, but after being laid off from one job he realized that his eyesight won't allow him to do physical labor forever. He decided to work with his mind.
Gates went to Pikes Peak Community College, and today he'll graduate with honors from UCCS with a degree in psychology.
"I had always been interested in psychology and how the brain functions," Gates said.
"It's interesting to see how different people react in a given situation."
He plans to stay in school for an advanced degree, perhaps for a career in counseling kids with visual disabilities or to become a researcher.
His vision makes school more complicated, too - he feeds his textbooks into a screen reader that converts the words to audio.
"I am a visual learner, or I was," Gates said. "But I had to transition to being an audio learner."
College wasn't easy for him. "I've worked 12-hour, 16-hour days of hard labor, and I was nowhere near as tired," he said. "I found myself way more exhausted after studying day in and day out."
And yet, he loves it. Gates said college has given him more than a degree; it has helped grow up and become a better man.
"Education has been a really great tool for my rehabilitation as an individual and a father," he said. "I had to struggle to grow up, being a young man without a father figure at all. I got into trouble as a teen and into my early 20s. College really helped me mature."
In turn, he hopes this experience opens doors for his kids.
"Hopefully, my kids can focus on their studies and not worry about getting a job to pay day-to-day expenses," he said. "I feel I'm laying the foundation for my children to hopefully follow in my footsteps."
It started with Legos, then the pieces came together
Marie Bush just wanted to build a better Lego robot, and now she's gone and become an electrical engineer.
Bush, 50, dropped out of UCCS' engineering program in 1979, and became a wife and mother. Today she's finishing what she started 30 years ago.
"I wanted to be there this time," Bush said. "I sat in lectures with a smile on my face thinking, ‘This is so much fun.'"
What drew her back were Legos.
Bush helped fifth-graders build a Lego robot as she coached a FIRST Lego League team, and her daughter Kaylee served as a high school mentor. She decided to take Introduction to Robotics at UCCS so she could be a better coach, and once she got started it was hard to stop.
Bush graduated with an electrical engineering degree Friday, and Kaylee is scheduled to graduate in December with an electrical engineering degree from the University of Colorado in Boulder.
"I had to learn how to learn all over again; I was a little rusty," Bush said. "It made me realize I can do it. I'm walking about two feet off the ground today. I never thought I'd get here, and here I am, and it's mind-blowing."
Kaylee thought it was fun, too, even if her life became a "your mom" joke. A friend texted her and said "your mom is in my class," and some of her high school friends became her mom's college friends and lab partners. The pair had some classes in the same semester and helped each other study for finals.
Now, Bush runs the regional FIRST Lego League competition headquartered at UCCS (www.coloradofirst.org/socolorado), and her empty nest doesn't seem very empty. This summer she'll be back on campus to teach Introduction to Robotics, the class that started it all.
Pursuing a dream deferred: It's never too late, he says
Forget crossword puzzles. Jim Rynning, 89, uses quantum mechanics to keep his mind active.
World War II interrupted Rynning's first shot at studying physics, when the draft board plucked him out of school in 1942. By the time the war ended, he had a wife and child, and decided electrical engineering would be more practical than physics.
He was pressed back into duty during the Korean War, manned radar stations around the country, and after the war ended up in Colorado Springs. As Sputnik hurtled into orbit and America was consumed with catching up with the Russians in the space race, Rynning worked on a satellite tracking group at Ent Air Force Base.
He retired as an Air Force colonel in 1974, he said, after years in Greenland and at the Pentagon on radar projects and satellite tracking.
Thirty-five years after his retirement from the military, Rynning hasn't stopped thinking about the way things work.
Tooling around town in his yellow Volkswagen bug, he opens the downtown YMCA at 5 a.m. several days a week, and he heads to UCCS to learn beside students 70 years his junior.
Rynning recently earned a special Chancellor's Award for his demonstration of lifelong learning. He's audited four to six classes per semester for several years, zooming through history classes, philosophy classes, and nearly every upper-level physics course the school offers.
The math has stayed the same, of course, but Rynning said quantum theory has changed almost as much as professors' wardrobes during the past seven decades.
"The problem when you get older is your eyes don't hold up the way they should, and your brain doesn't retain things as well," Rynning said. "But I get the mental stimulation, if you will, and the idea of learning something new. This is a whole new field."
Contact the writer at 636-0226.