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This scientist lectures to preschoolers

Not long ago, Ann Piening McMahon had a career analyzing laser communications satellites and making computer models for McDonnell Douglas Corp.

Now, she's showing rocks to preschoolers for a living.

"As far as I know, I'm the only scientist who does birthday parties," she said.

McMahon is one of the success stories among 11,000 workers laid off since September 1990 by the nation's largest defense contractor.

The last time a survey was done, in the fall, only 45 percent had secured full-time employment, almost all at lower wages. They were swept out of their jobs in the initial wave of post-Cold War military spending cutbacks that government analysts predict will take 2-million jobs nationwide.

"There's not a lot of jobs for these people to go into," said Don Kirchgessner, director of a program that helps new small businesses at the St. Louis County Enterprise Center. "But they come out with a severance package and with skills and stability, so a lot are in a good position for a change."

McMahon, 32, knew prospects for being rehired at McDonnell Douglas were bleak. She took advantage of company-sponsored entrepreneurial training and emerged a year ago as the Science Lady.

"I said, "Hey, this is an opportunity for me,'

" said McMahon, who spent 10 years with McDonnell Douglas Missile Systems Co. "I really have been amazed at how much demand there is for a person who can make science real for kids."

McMahon, a mother of two young children, works at preschools during the week. On weekends she becomes Serendipity, the Science Magician, on the party circuit. She uses balloons, trash bags and imagination to teach kids about astronomy and the solar system.

On a recent visit at the Eliot Chapel Nursery School, McMahon brought home the differences in various rocks to the 4-and-under set by equating the layers in the Earth's crust to the toppings of a pizza.

"She really communicates well with young children," said Sally Schoenecker, director of the nursery school. "She has a way of painting a visual picture with words that kids can grasp."

McMahon said enthusiastically, "You can do a ton of science with balloons."

While her husband still works at McDonnell Douglas as a structural designer, she has traded her better paying corporate job for one where her lab coat is adorned with multicolored handprints.

"My job at McDonnell Douglas was amazingly more technical than this," McMahon said. "I liked what I did there, but this has an element of fun."

McMahon's radical career change appears to be the exception. Other McDonnell Douglas casualties starting spinoff businesses are sticking closer to their old job descriptions.

That's the advice given by Bob Brockhaus, director of the Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies at St. Louis University.

"We tell them to use their skills and education and network acquired over the years," he said. "Don't throw that away."

Ron Warhurst tested automatic equipment for three years at McDonnell Douglas and was a contract engineer for about 15 years when he got laid off in September 1990. He began a one-man computer repair business about a year ago, working with personal computers.

Warhurst gets reduced rates for office space and business advice from the Enterprise Center program.

"It's getting a lot better," Warhurst said. "When you start up with nothing and get to where you can see daylight it's encouraging. And I like doing it."

One aerospace engineer who voluntarily left McDonnell Douglas hopes his startup business will create jobs for former co-workers.

George Brill, 28, is now the president of AeroTech Service Group, which soon plans to hire up to 17 laid-off workers.

"You just can't believe the number of people who are out there who are interested, and maybe a little desperate, to get back into the workforce," Brill said. "As a small company, we want to utilize all of this experience."

AeroTech and another company started by a laid-off McDonnell Douglas worker have bid on a contract to overhaul mothballed Harrier jets for the Indian Navy.

"The main reason I wanted to take a chance and leave was because I felt we could attack certain markets," Brill said. "I'm convinced the work is still out there."