This Halloween, Bill McConnell walked into his 11 a.m. astronomy class dressed as the late Harry Houdini. He wore a tuxedo and a long, flowing cape with a transparent plastic mask covering his face. In costume, he performed magic tricks for his students at the front of the class. He pulled out a little box, opened it to reveal nothing inside, and closed it again. He muttered a magic incantation and reopened the box. Inside was a single, bite-size Milky Way candy bar.
“Keeping with our topic of astronomy,” McConnell said. “This is the only candy bar for our class.”
McConnell, professor emeritus and current adjunct faculty professor of the department of biological sciences, has taught more than 35 courses at Webster University over the past 48 years.
McConnell has taught classes such as physics, meteorology, the science and psychology of music, as well as the class he is best known for — astronomy.
Outside of attending a couple courses on the subject, McConnell said he is largely self-taught in the field of astronomy. He said astronomy started off as being just a hobby for him, until he started teaching it at Webster in 1967.
“Everybody sees the sky,” McConnell said. “A lot of people don’t question what they see, and I just thought … it’s a good way to try and get students to think about what they’re seeing and to ask questions about it. And to see how their answers to those questions match with what they think the world is like, the universe is like.”
Mikaelah Stark, senior international relations major, took astronomy with McConnell this fall semester, her first class with him.
“From day one, really, one of the first things that he keeps saying is, ‘You need to change your thinking. You need to evaluate where your thinking is, and if your thinking isn’t logical and it doesn’t match up with the facts at hand, then obviously you need to change your thinking.,’” Stark said. “And it’s not just with astronomy. … He’s a great teacher, but I think he almost takes it upon himself to be more of a life teacher, too.”
Andrea Rothbart, Webster professor of mathematics, said she has known McConnell since 1970.
“He is very respected,” Rothbart said. “He’s a sweetheart of a person.”
When Rothbart’s husband died, McConnell arranged for a star to be named in his honor.
In addition to a hobby in astronomy, McConnell also has an interest in magic.
“Matter of fact, people in science tend to look the other way … what we look at as magic today,” McConnell said. “In science, as we know more, it ceases to be magical. We can explain it. And so the goal is the same as it is in magic. To be able to find something in magic, you’re setting off to fool the people — in science, you’re trying to not let Mother Nature fool you. I think that’s the definition of science, as we get sharper, we can explain things that we couldn’t explain in the past.”
McConnell said he meets once a month with two different magicians’ groups in the area — the International Brotherhood of Magicians and the Society of American Magicians. He sometimes will use magic tricks in class to demonstrate certain concepts to his students. More often than not, he said, he is trying to demonstrate the type of “reasoning that can get you into trouble.”
McConnell said one of his favorite quotes on magic came from one of his students:
“The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper.”
After earning his Masters of Science in natural sciences, McConnell came to teach at Webster in the summer of 1964. His degree gave him a wide background in the field of science, so he taught “whatever needed to be taught.” He has taught at Webster’s campuses in Kansas City, Thailand and at Webster’s former campus on a naval base in Reykjavik, Iceland. He was one of the first of Webster’s professors to use a computer in the classroom. McConnell has also taught several classes without a required text. Instead, the educational material is all on the Internet.
“The Internet allows you to go further,” McConnell said. “The text has to stop somewhere. But the Internet, the crosslinks and things, can take you wherever you wanna go if you have an interest in something. You can follow it, and I think the rest of your life you can spend doing that.”
McConnell said his teaching method will often incorporate demonstrations. He said he wanted students to see certain concepts, instead of just memorize them.
“In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve saw the animals, and they named them,” McConnell said. “In contemporary schools, children name the animals, but they never see them. I think that you ought to at least be able to see some of the things that you’ve got words for.”
Stark described McConnell’s teaching style as “very visual.” She said he will often draw on the blackboard, or will hand out Star Finders, devices for locating stars in the sky. He would then ask his astronomy students to find certain stars in the sky. A requirement of his astronomy class is that students attend at least two viewing sessions on top of Webster Hall. Stark said McConnell will often bring his telescope, and he and the students will look at constellations. As the semester goes on, the students can see how the constellations change positions in the sky.
Stark said she has gained a better understanding of astronomy since taking McConnell’s class.
“But I think, also, he’s kind of made me think a little bit more about life in general,” Stark said. “I didn’t realize it until fall break, how he really kind of does affect everyone in the class, as that grandfatherly, you know, ‘I have wisdom to impart on you’ type. I found myself, a couple times, I’ll do something, and I’m like, ‘Oh man, he said something like that last week and that was a really good point that he made.’ … If you look a little deeper, he cares, and it’s obvious.”
McConnell said the normal credit hour load for a full-time professor is nine hours.
“The most I have ever taught is 23 in one semester,” McConnell said. “That was ridiculous. But you just couldn’t say no. It was a small department (Webster’s science department at the time) and you just did it.”
McConnell received the Missouri Science Educator Award in 1969, Webster’s Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching in 1994, the Gene Fuchs Memorial Excellence in Teaching Award in 1997 and the Outstanding Science Educator Award in 2004.
Rothbart said her sons took classes with McConnell during their time at Webster.
She said they described him as, “absolutely the most wonderful teacher,” and they “learned so much from him and still remember much of what he’s taught them in physics.”
McConnell retired as a full-time professor in 2009, but continues as an adjunct professor in the science department. He said he is considering retiring completely at the end of this academic year but has until January to decide.
In the meantime, McConnell said he will continue to enjoy teaching, as well as learning.
“Even when I’m not teaching, it’s not unusual for me to go outside, look at the sky, and be sure that I recognize some things,” McConnell said. “And try to figure out some piece of information that I didn’t know before, and how that relates to what I thought I knew and continue to learn.”
Stark said McConnell would be missed if he did decide to retire.
“There can always be someone who comes in and teaches astronomy again,” Stark said. “But I really think he’s contributed a lot to Webster as a university. He’s been here forever. … I think he will be missed, definitely by those who knew him. The people coming in (incoming students) just don’t know what they’re missing.”