Brandon and Joel Runnels
Brandon and Joel Runnels both began their college careers at UNM-LA.  
Credit: Scott Runnels

The Runnels, a local Los Alamos family of bright homeschooled kids and their parents, have nothing but praise for their experiences attending UNM-Los Alamos as high schoolers and later as college students.

One of the four Runnels children has earned a Ph.D. degree, one is a Ph.D. candidate in aerospace engineering, one is pursuing a B.S. degree in mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech with plans to attend graduate school and the youngest is currently enrolled in Calculus I and Chemistry I at UNM-LA as a high school senior.

Los Alamos National Lab scientist Scott Runnels, Ph.D. in engineering mechanics, wanted his kids to “get their feet wet and find out what it’s like to take a college course” before they finished high school. With four kids to put through college, the affordable classes at the local university were a positive factor as well.

The Runnels had heard from other Los Alamos families that UNM-LA provided a good educational foundation and learning experience for their pre-college and college-aged children, so they also tried it.

“We and the kids were pleased with the instruction they got at UNM-LA during high school,” Scott said. “Taking dual credit courses plus spending one-to-two years at UNM-LA greatly relieved their course load in later years. Plus, the UNM-LA instructors were very good and the class sizes were small.”

The oldest Runnels offspring, Brandon Runnels, Ph.D., attended UNM-LA for two years in preparation for a B.S. in mechanical engineering at New Mexico Tech. He then attended California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, for his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. He is now an assistant professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs.

“Don’t be deceived: UNM-LA may look like an isolated junior college from a distance, but it taps the world-class expertise and teaching ability of Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists,” Brandon said. “I had the opportunity to learn from excellent and passionate instructors in classes with ten or fewer people. That’s quality above and beyond what you’ll find at any other school, and it’s at a fraction of the cost.”

Brandon also noted, “The upper-level classes were taught with more rigor than similar classes at other four-year institutions. If anything, I was over prepared when I transferred out to complete my degree.” A few instructors who made an impression on him during his time there (about eight years ago) were the late Mark Carrera (thermodynamics), Kelly McLenithan (vector analysis), and Rod Linn (statics). “The way I think about many of these subjects was shaped directly by them.”

The second Runnels child Joel had the same college attendance as Brandon of two years at UNM-LA and two at New Mexico Tech graduating with a B.S. in mechanical engineering. Joel is now a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering at the University of Minnesota.

“The head start I got by taking classes as a high school senior gave me a lot of flexibility during my undergraduate studies to take courses of interest to me while still finishing in four years,” Joel said. “UNM-LA is unique in that it gives students the opportunity to take a wide variety of science and engineering courses from practicing professionals (working at LANL) in a small classroom environment with an unprecedented amount of one-on-one interaction with instructors.

"It also allows students to be enrolled in full-time classes and work a year-round internship at a top science and engineering institution (LANL), which further augments the educational experience and allows concepts learned in the classroom to immediately be put to use in practical applications.”

Joel shared that he has felt consistently more prepared for upper-level undergraduate and graduate level courses than his peers, which he attributed to the solid understanding of the fundamental concepts he gained while taking classes at UNM-LA. “UNM-LA really presents a unique opportunity to learn from professionals who teach because they love teaching, not because they have to,” he added.

A few instructors Joel attributed for the excellent UNM-LA experience included Irena Alvestad (“whose passion for helping students shows clearly through the excellent job she does of teaching,”) Mike McNaughton (“who has a way of simplifying and demystifying concepts that are normally hard to understand,”) Rod Linn (“who does an excellent job of teaching entry-level engineering courses that many students find difficult,”) Melanie Shirk (“whose courses are absolutely fantastic; her lectures are engaging and make learning history fascinating and enjoyable,”) and Michele Marsee (“As an engineer, I’m normally not a fan of humanities courses, but Marsee makes writing and humanities courses enjoyable and intellectually stimulating, and really helped improve my writing and critical thinking skills.”)

Scott credits his wife Joy, with giving the kids their early education with years of homeschool under her tutelage. Joy, who holds a B.S. in chemistry and a Master’s in audiology, homeschooled all four kids from their elementary to high school years.

“Our family is so thankful for UNM-LA,” Scott said.