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Waukesha teen working to make better world

Zwick is on leave after just finishing his first year on scholarship at Harvard.

Zwick is on leave after just finishing his first year on scholarship at Harvard.

June 29, 2012

Maybe Waukesha has produced the next Mark Zuckerberg.

You never know, but it seems like Connor Zwick, a 2011 graduate of Waukesha South High School who just turned 19, might be well on his way.

He's a Harvard dropout, after all, just like Facebook founder Zuckerberg. Technically, Zwick's on leave after just finishing his first year on scholarship at Harvard. He left to accept a two-year, $100,000 Thiel Fellowship announced earlier this month, an opportunity based on the philosophy that "you don't need no stinkin' college degree" to change the world.

So Zwick gets to spend two years in Silicon Valley dreaming bigger than before.

Zwick was featured in the Journal Sentinel in January 2011 because the mobile app he released while a senior in high school was taking off, with 80,000 downloads at that point.

The free app, called Flashcards+, is essentially a digital flashcard system that advertises itself as "an educational engine that can help anyone learn anything." For a small price, you can get text-to-voice technology in 22 languages. The app will even read the cards to you, and you've got your pick from a database of 12 million decks.

"It just seemed like something that would be useful," he said in a telephone interview, explaining how he came up with the idea. It sounds so simple.

The latest count has the invention at 1.6 million downloads, Zwick said, enough that "I make a good enough amount of money that I could support myself off Flashcards+."

But he doesn't really have to for a while. For two years he gets to pursue his passion without personal financial worries and with all the mentoring he can ask for. The goal is to launch a new product or business venture that will make the world better.

Some of it is hush-hush for now, but Zwick said he's working on a product related to Flashcards+.

Naturally, Robyn Zwick is a proud mother. She said Connor, the youngest of her and Ron Zwick's three children, was always intuitive and loved computers. He ruined his favorite music as a small child - a cassette of "Don't Worry, Be Happy" - when he took it apart to see what made it tick.

"I was always fascinated by technology and new things," he said. "I just liked to tinker. It just went from there."

Both parent and child point to a third-grade teacher at Trinity Lutheran School as a key, someone Connor wrote about in his college essay that was part of his Harvard application.

"I would ask a lot of random questions," he said. The teacher wasn't afraid to admit he didn't know the answer, and he often told Connor he'd get extra credit if he'd go home, find the answer and write a report on it.

Connor learned that if he really wanted to know something, he could get answers for himself.

"I used Google a lot," he said, the technology that helped him learn about computer programming so he could start writing online tutorials when he was 14.

Robyn Zwick is an accountant for a construction firm. Her husband, now semiretired, was parts manager for an automotive dealer.

"We hated to see him do this," she said of his walking away from Harvard. "I've always wanted him to have choices and an education."

But he can always go back. And she can see where this might lead.

***

If you're a pilot, it's a good idea to stay above the tree line.

But a Racine County woman who's been a recreational pilot for more than two decades is now in the woods, thanks to an unusual honor bestowed this month.

Carol Voss, 58, of the Town of Yorkville, is now recognized with some of the world's most celebrated aviators - from the Wright Brothers to astronauts Sally Ride and Chuck Yeager - in the International Forest of Friendship.

The connection between rooted trees and winged aircraft seems like a stretch, but here it goes.

The forest is a living memorial to aviation and aerospace given as a gift to America in 1976, the bicentennial, in Amelia Earhart's birthplace, Atchison, Kan.

An international organization of women pilots called The Ninety-Nines along with the city of Atchison donated the gift. There were 99 women pilot members of the organization founded in 1929, and Earhart was its first president. The forest features a state tree from every state and from 35 countries around the world. There's even a "moon tree" planted from seeds that flew to the moon.

Each year honorees are named, and monument-pavers are placed along walkways near appropriate trees. Voss' engraved paver is near the sugar maple, Wisconsin's state tree.

Voss was picked for the honor this year because she's a mainstay of the small, 30-member Wisconsin Chapter of The Ninety-Nines, and because of all she does to bring the love of aviation to the Boy Scouts.

She's organized camps at the Racine airport for Scouts who earn their aviation merit badge. She's advanced from merit badge counselor to an active district leader for the Three Harbors Boy Scout Council covering Milwaukee, Racine and Kenosha counties.

More recently, she's joined with technical colleges to develop an aviation merit badge event using the expertise of aviation teachers at the schools.

It's no secret why Voss has a love of aviation. She fell in love because of it.

Her first date with the man who would become her husband was in a small airplane for a romantic flight over bright city lights.

On last year's wedding anniversary, they took a plunge again, sky diving for the first time together.

Contact Laurel Walker at (262) 650-3183 or email lwalker@jrn.com. Follow on Twitter @walkcol.

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