A Profile of Brennon T. Williams, Techie Entrepreneur

In many respects Brennon Williams resembles any other teenager, but you might also mistake him for a fully loaded freight train driving at high speed down the track. This youngster has a lot of forward momentum.

Brennon, who lives between San Francisco and San Jose, recently was chosen as one of the winners of the Digital Open prize, which recognizes outstanding youth tech innovators 17 and under. Meet Brennon in this YouTube video.

Brennon can most succinctly be described as a writer, publisher (Science Quarterly), programmer, entrepreneur, inventor, teacher and science advocate. (I could add debater, Website builder, interviewer, investment club founder, and a small book’s worth of other nouns.)

To find out more about what makes Brennon Williams tick, I asked several people who know him well to share some anecdotes about him. After reading them, you might want to visit his online robotics kit store, BW Science Labs and then follow Brennon on Twitter.

Regardless of what you do, hold onto your hats because this train is not slowing down for any stations. Who needs train stations anyway? Full speed ahead. There is much to be done.

Anecdotes about Brennon from his dad, Bryce:

When thinking about how to best describe Brennon, Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, immediately comes to mind. While not necessarily what one would describe as born gifted in any one area, Brennon undoubtedly and unknowingly subscribes to the ten thousand hour pursuit of learning. Led by an insatiable appetite to know more, Brennon is relentless in any area that interests him, and his interests are vast. Most passionate about the field of science, Brennon has put enormous amounts of energy and reading hours toward a deeper understanding of this field. However, the world of finance, writing, and music have also captured his attention and resulted in the foundation of an investment club, his discovery of the piano and a desire to learn to play it in middle school despite the 5:45am practice time he set for himself, and writing contests that resulted in wins of both the Patriot Pen (a nationwide history writing contest) and the grade-wide middle school short-story writing contest he won as a 7th-grader.

The amazing thing about Brennon is there is nothing pretend when it comes to his passion for science. In 5th grade, driven by a desire to learn more from experts, Brennon started what began as a monthly science publication. With the self-imposed goal of interviewing at least one professional scientist per issue, Brennon has met with countless doctors, engineers, technology experts, museum directors, and field workers. He has interviewed a Nobel Prize winner and reached out to experts across the land through letters and e-mail communications. Brennon is unafraid to reach out to experts in every field. He has written to Steve Forbes; forged an online discourse with one of his favorite physicists, Michael Douglas of Brown University; proposed ongoing questions to MIT professors and corresponded with his favorite childhood authors. Undaunted when initial attempts fail to result in communications, Brennon will continue to reach out over the span of years.

It is perhaps the interview format that best exposes Brennon’s open fascination with learning. On one of the many interviews I took him to, Brennon met Marc Murbach, director of research at Ames Space Center. He specialized in rocket designs to test instrumentation necessary to determine if there is water on Mars, a “game changer” for any manned space travel there. At a coffee shop in Mountain View, California, Brennon interviewed him for his Science Quarterly news magazine. The Ames scientist began the interview by placing a cylinder in the middle of the table and asking Brennon what the biggest challenge to sending a machine into space for long periods of time could be. A 6th grader at the time, Brennon did not hesitate, “Power.” Fuel and other means of keeping the machine running are too heavy and impractical for space travel. “Correct,” Marc said, “what kind of power would last a long time and yet be strong enough to power instrumentation?” Brennon thought for a moment and then said, “A gamma source?” The scientist smiled and said, “You are very close - the correct answer is an alpha source because its half-life is longer than a gamma source. An alpha source would give us about 120 years worth of power.” Brennon nodded his head. Another data point logged into his brain. For the next hour, the two discussed the biophysical and other challenges (space radiation, etc) at a level I could not understand. Brennon was bummed when the interview came to an end, but invigorated by all of the new information he had learned. On the drive home, he replayed his conversation and added his own ideas for whether or not manned space travel to Mars was feasible given today’s technologies and the biomedical limitations of the 4-year trip into the remote crevasses of space.

Brennon and I went to Washington, D.C., in the fall of his 8th grade year. The obvious targets of our trip were the Smithsonian in general and the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in particular. We attended every movie and planetarium show. While waiting in line for the planetarium show, two Australian gentlemen in front of us were in a heavy debate over the source of dark matter and whether it actually exists. Brennon listened intently. When the guys turned in our direction, Brennon could not resist weighing in, “Dark matter absolutely exists and has been proven.” For the next 10 minutes, Brennon discussed Einstein’s original thoughts on dark matter, and improvements in his thinking by physicists of a more recent vintage, and closed with spectrometer-based experiments that show without doubt it exists. Brennon ended with his own ideas for what dark matter DOES-- its purpose in the universe. The stunned gentlemen asked if all 13-year-old kids were taught these things in U.S. schools.

Most recently fascinated with computer languages like Python, Java, and ActionScript, Brennon’s home library is bulging with manuals and instruction material to develop games he would like to sell on his Website, BW Science Labs. In addition, his robotics and other science inventions have become the latest conduits for both learning and funding his various enterprises. Currently interested in a more streamlined site, Brennon is reaching out to experts that will help him make his Website cleaner-looking and more user-friendly.

Anecdotes about Brennon from Nancy Fortman, Middle School Tech Director:

Being an early-morning person, I would always arrive early to school and open the door to the computer lab for the students who came early. Brennon was a regular almost every day during his middle school years. I always knew when he had a new issue of his Science Quarterly, because he would enter the room more excited than usual and be anxious to show me his latest edition. This was before he went digital with his blog. I always enjoyed reading his journal, especially his interviews with doctors, engineers and marine biologists. I offered to proofread and made some recommendations about citations, but he graciously smiled, said thank you and continued to publish. Since he typically recorded his interviews, I suggested the option of creating podcasts and was excited about showing him how to edit and to post the interview in a digital format to post as a podcast. He agreed to give it a try. I will never forget sitting down with him to start the process when he shared that his last interview was about six hours long. A tribute to his time commitment to his research as well as the passion witnessed by those he interviewed who gave their time to answer his questions. Needless to say the recording was never edited down to sizeable chunks for podcasting.

After Brennon's seventh grade year, I stopped making suggestions and instead began listening more intently to what Brennon was really doing. By then he was programming, and becoming interested in physics, engineering and robotics. He had dropped the paper delivery of his work and created an online presence -BW Science Labs which had thousands of readers in over 50 countries. Brennon was always sharing interesting Websites and programs and updating me on his activities. He was published on MakeMagazine.com. It became evident to me that his passion for science and learning, engineering, programming, and more brought to you by a 14 (now15) year old - was something to be shared. So I asked Brennon if he would be willing to speak at our middle school assembly. He asked what he should talk about and I suggested he talk about how he turned his passion for science into action. The faculty and student body were mesmerized by his presentation. Word of his talk spread throughout the school community and he was soon asked to speak at a school board meeting.

Brennon is quite the entrepreneur. Our school offers clubs that typically are generated by teacher interests, such as knitting, scrapbooking, yoga, computer club, and so on. In sixth grade he wanted to have an investment club, so he found a teacher to host the club. They were able to get parents to put in some seed money, and the profit they earned in three years was donated to a charity that was voted on by the student body. The club, now named Money Management Club, is still being offered.

My life has been enriched from my knowing Brennon and he has taught me a great deal about what is really important to students. Of course they need to be nurtured, encouraged, challenged and inspired. But, they also need to be listened to, taken seriously and affirmed. And when they are acknowledged and invited to share, they motivate others.

Recently Brennon offered to teach classes in Flash to our middle school students. We are tying to find a time that would fit into the schedule to do so. He is someone who is willing to share his talents. He has a humble yet confident spirit with a keen sense of humor that makes you smile when you are in his presence. I know he is destined for more great things in his life. As a science blogger said after viewing the “Passion to Action” presentation, “If Brennon is our future, we are in good hands.”

Brennon was the first student that I asked to share something not school assigned, but his own personal pursuits, at a school assembly. He is not your stereotypical “nerdy” scientist. He is silly and playful as well as serious about his studies. He has a friendliness and charm that reaches out to others and invites you into his world.

Anecdotes about Brennon from his camp counselor, Adam McClure.

I have known Brennon now for over two years and there are endless stories that I could tell that describe his strengths and pursuits.

I was Brennon's camp counselor at Kanakuk two summers ago and had the pleasure of having him for a month. In that month I really got the chance to understand his passions, humor, and personality.

I distinctly remember going on a 23 mile canoe trip where Brennon was in my canoe for a few hours and we were just talking about life and I did a lot of listening. He talked about his love of science and education as well as the stock market. He might have talked for over 45 minutes about the stock market and other prospective business pursuits of his. I would often get him to explain the whole thing. He was so open to talking about it and giving it to me in laymen's terms. I told him that I could not wait to work for him in the future. He often laughed about it just goofing around at the fact that I could work for him. He truly is so smart and personable.

Many times at camp we would have big parties and dances and although Brennon may be a little hesitant to jump in and bust a move on the dance floor, I would often drag him out there and get him going. He was always open to new experiences even if they were out of this comfort zone. He would try it all with a big smile on his face and saying that it was one of the best.

I have never met anyone like Brennon before. He is so passionate about the pursuit of knowledge and truth and is very steadfast in what he believes. He is always encouraging others. He loves to laugh and spread joy to others.

Anecdotes about Brennon from Norm Colb, Menlo School

I first became aware of Brennon Williams early in his first year at Menlo School. A 6th grader, this precocious young man asked the administration to identify a faculty advisor for an investment club he wanted to start. If memory serves, Brennon’s club actually got going and had a remarkably successful run. Rumor has it that he beat every major index.

At roughly the same time, still as a 6th grader, Brennon published an issue of his magazine, Science Quarterly. Brennon was the magazine’s sole author and the Quarterly was so well written and covered so many sophisticated topics that I literally had never seen anything to match it. In the intervening years, of course, Science Quarterly has become ever more impressive and, along with its companion blog, has garnered a world-wide readership.

Last spring, Brennon presented his blog twice: first to his 200 fellow students in the Middle School and then to approximately 50 of his school’s trustees, past and present. During his presentation, Brennon spoke about his passion for science, his commitment to thinking outside of the box, and his entrepreneurial spirit. It is a very significant understatement to say that both his fellow students and the trustees were astounded by Brennon’s drive, creativity and command of highly complex and varied disciplines. He simply amazed us all.

Anecdotes about Brennon from his friend Micah Rosales

Earlier this year, as we were just starting out our high school career, Brennon was trying to convince us to join him in going to some of the lunchtime clubs that our school offers. Naturally, Brennon leaned towards some of the scientific clubs, and one day at lunch, he asked me if I wanted to go to “The Neighborhood” club. When I asked him what they did there, he told me that the just played cool games and had good food. Unfortunately, I had already heard of the club, which was actually the math and science club, where the members are introduced to intriguing math problems. At first I just thought it was comical that he tried to trick me into going to a math club with him, but it became even funnier as time grew on. After he had attended the club, he came back and reported with genuine disgust that there was a “nerd hierarchy” in the club, and that the “followernerds” were afraid of the “leader nerds.” That is one of the things that I find very interesting about Brennon: he is incredibly talented at his work especially in the scientific field, however he is still very personable, and even though some of his work or projects could be classified as “nerdy,” he is almost as far from a stereotypical “nerd” as I can think of. His interests range from tennis and golf (some wrestling too), to robotics. If you asked him, “What did you do over the weekend Brennon?” he might give his casual-but-still-stunning reply, “Oh, I programmed the micro-controller for my autonomous robot.”

Anecdotes about Brennon from his friend Daniel Breyer

Before meeting Brennon, I was certain that I was our middle school’s debate champion. Yet, after hearing him obliterate my opening argument in a 7th grade debate, it became clear that I was off by a long shot. His gifted way with words, and skillfully formed rebuttals, truly caused astonishment. Prior to this occasion, I had dubbed Brennon as the science guy. Now, I realize his talents go far beyond making robots and ranting about physics – although he is quite good at those things too. Brennon is a one-of-a-kind guy with a one-of-a-kind brain. I am honored to be his friend.

Anecdotes about Brennon from Erin Brigham, Middle School Director, Menlo School

I am happy to write to you about one of my all time favorite students, Brennon Williams. Brennon is a fierce debater. I ran debate club in the Middle School for the last two years, and Brennon attended almost every meeting without fail. He was quick on his feet, and used fact and humor to eviscerate his opponent. After his opponent would speak, he would face the student audience, laughing in disbelief at whatever had been said, and begin, "Ladies and Gentlemen," and then would proceed to tear each of his opponent's points into ribbons. His favorite debate and one he would have anytime, anywhere was PC vs. Mac. He is a PC guy down to the bone.

I believe Brennon was most impressive in his deliverance of a speech at a student assembly as an eighth grader. He spoke to 6th, 7th and 8th graders about pursuing their passions and his start-up of a small business. He also spoke about his quarterly science publication and the Website he created. This could have been a lecture at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference. He spoke easily and earnestly about his passion for science; it takes great bravery to address a middle school audience when you are a middle schooler yourself. Students and faculty were moved and impressed.

Phil Shapiro

The blogger is an educator and technology commentator in the Washington DC-area. He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

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