"Hands-on" science education is Emmons' legacy

(06-23-2009)

Demonstrating the relative distance between the nine planets and the sun, Dr. Randall Emmons would tape cutouts representing Mercury to Pluto, when it was still a planet, from the Adams State Zacheis Planetarium to the antenna of a small truck, parked a few yards away on the street. His humor, joking about using a stranger's vehicle - when it was actually his own - and positive energy engaged his students and displayed the relative distance of our solar system's objects.

Emmons' teaching philosophy emphasized hands-on activities and making science fun for students of all ages, from college to kindergarten. He retired this spring after 20 years at Adams State with the rank of emeritus professor of physics.

Adams State graduate of '04 and '08, Shelly Grandell, has known Emmons for nearly eight years. She worked with him on a variety of projects, many through the planetarium. Her first class with Emmons was astronomy. Rather than handing out a syllabus and beginning to lecture, Emmons asked the students what they wanted to get out of the class. "That was cool. He always made it fun."

Emmons has taught physics, astronomy and other mathematics and science courses for Adams State College since 1989. He attended University of Missouri at Rolla and earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, Master of Science in physics, and Bachelor of Science in physics. He said he majored in physics because he "couldn't decide what else to do" and the basic thinking, problem solving skills of physics can be applied in a variety of areas. He said he has applied those skills to keep from falling during his climbing career - "you think through and problem-solve knowing the forces involved."

Another physics professor, Dr. Matthew Nehring, chemistry, computer science and mathematics department chair, arrived at Adams State College in 1998. Emmons was his primary mentor in those early years. "He freely provided advice and was thoughtful when I had questions," Nehring said.

Classroom manner

Students found Emmons to be inspiring and thoughtful. When Grandell took his physics class, she expected it to be intimidating. "He had infinite patience with us, really. He always wanted to make sure we not only comprehended what we were learning but that we could apply it, not just regurgitate it."

Cameron Miller, Adams State '92 graduate, said Emmons would spell out his expectations. "He had the sarcastic, literal sense of humor science students appreciate. He was always available for help outside of class and had ways of simplifying problems even I could understand."

Grandell recalls a conversation with other physics students of Emmons, as they "tirelessly" worked on a problem, her junior year. "We noticed he never came to class with notes. He made it look so damn easy. I cannot remember a single time he ever had to use notes for lecture. It was impressive. It just flowed naturally."

Now an IT professional in Adams State Computing Services, Miller said: "Every class with Dr. Emmons was a lot of work. When Randy's daughter, Megan, was around four or five, I remember her occasionally attending some upper division physics classes. If we were not paying attention, Randy would give Megan the eraser while lecturing. We all hoped our notes were caught up because the formulas on the board started disappearing fast."

"I will probably remember Randy most for his sense of humor and his concern and dedication to science and science education," Nehring said. "He has always been able to stimulate interest in science by making students laugh."

Science beyond the ivory tower

Stimulating interest in science did not stop at the collegiate level. Dr. Marty Jones, professor of chemistry, arrived on campus the same year as Emmons. Within a year or two, Emmons convinced physics colleague, Dr. Ted Mueller, to conduct a physics magic show with demos. "Since that time, Randy has always been the leader in science outreach to the San Luis Valley, and beyond," Jones said.

Emmons estimates over 6,000 children connected with the campus through his outreach programs. After Dr. Peterson, emeritus professor of geology, retired, Emmons took over Zacheis Planetarium. "He modernized it, and began offering many more programs to K-12 students," Jones said. "He then found a way to incorporate other science activities with the planetarium presentations, such as the popular rocket contest and robotics workshops." These activities have always been free.

Grandell said she was inspired to become an educator through working with Emmons on Zacheis Planetarium programs. "His infectious enthusiasm and dedication to science education/outreach inspired others to teach. We had one goal, to inspire others through engaging, fun exposure to science. Most importantly, everything was hands-on."

Emmons supported these activities by acquiring grants, - an average of over $25,000 per year - from the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, and private organizations. The funds allowed Emmons to upgrade equipment for Zacheis Planetarium, including telescopes and computers, as well as a new Science Activity Center located in the Community Partnership Center.

"It is safe to say that Randy has been involved in science education for the majority of K-12 students in the SLV in the past 15 years," Jones said. "Now, with the establishment of the Science Activity Center, he will be able to continue his efforts with science education even after retirement from full-time teaching. Although I'll miss seeing him on a daily basis in Porter Hall, I know where to find him."

"Talk to anyone who went to school in the SLV, and they probably remember visiting the planetarium throughout their school years," Grandell said. "The teachers of the groups were always impressed with the way he could communicate with the students. This was true for any age group, preschool through college."

"He has dedicated countless hours to the education of students beyond the campus," Nehring said. "He has always taken as much time as was necessary to explain a concept to a student, whether it was a high school student asking for guidance on a science fair project, or a student in one of his college classes."

Teaching a priority

Emmons served the college as president of the ASC Faculty Senate for six years and as the faculty advisor to the Board of Trustees of the State Colleges.

After completing his doctorate, he was department chair of physics at Northeastern Missouri State University, now known as Truman State University and one of the top five liberal arts universities in the U.S., where he both taught and built the program up to twelve faculty. He was on the advisory board of the American Institute of Physics, chaired for six years the Career Planning and Placement Council, directed the Northeast Missouri Regional Science Fair, and assisted in creating gifted and talented programs for elementary and secondary students throughout the United States.

Emmons wanted to come to Adams State because it is not a research university. "I chose teaching, because a researcher seldom sees how the work changes society. If I influenced one student out of 20, developing in them a drive to succeed in the profession of science or mathematics, that is positively affecting society," he said.

Outdoor enthusiast

From laboratory to mountain top, Emmons applies the same dedication and energy. He was a professional field tester for a number of outdoor equipment companies and has summited numerous peaks throughout the Western Hemisphere. His daughter, Megan, has accompanied him on climbs since she was a pre-schooler. To stay in shape, Emmons runs, sometimes competitive in mountain races. "I love running and it helps you move faster in the mountains. Speed in the mountains keeps you alive."

"One of my earliest memories of Randy was a hiking trip with the outdoor program at ASC to climb Mts. Lincoln, Democrat, and Bross," Jones said. "Randy made it up all three peaks in the time it took for my wife and I to climb just one."

For Emmons, 14,000 mountains are day hikes. He and Megan have endured days pinned down in tents, lying in their sleeping bags waiting out inclement weather to summit a 21,000 feet peak. "There was a time Megan was 14 years-old, she and I were pinned down in our bags for three days." He said he climbs because of the personal challenge. "I have estimated I have spent three years of my life above 14,000 feet. It gives me a sense of freedom and strong sense of responsibility. If you screw up in mountains, you have screwed up."

Along with science, technology, climbs, running, and photography, Emmons enjoys making furniture. His maternal grandfather was a furniture maker. "I invest my soul into a piece of furniture." He also enjoys mountaineer skiing, tackling significant robot problems, and has completed avalanche workshops and is back-country certified. He is also learning to play the flute.

Although he has no long-term plans after retirement, he and Megan, an electronics engineering student at the Colorado School of Mines, are planning to spend the summer camping and climbing from Wyoming to Alaska.

By Linda Relyea