Award-winning Auburn professor recognized as a pioneer in science education for bridging the gap between K-12 and college

Published: November 17, 2014
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Allen Landers in Auburn University's College of Sciences and Mathematics is known to many school teachers across Alabama as a modern-day plainsman – for both his ties to Auburn and his family's roots in the Kansas plains – and a trailblazer for his work bridging the gap between K-12 and college in a critical area of education.

Said to be similar in spirit to the 19th century plainsmen who opened the frontier across the Southern Plains, including Auburn, and the Great Plains farther west, the Auburn professor is described by friends and colleagues as a modern day plainsman for his leadership in opening the frontier of science, technology and math for a new generation of school children through innovative K-12 outreach.

Since arriving at Auburn in 2003, Landers has developed a variety of new K-12 STEM education outreach projects focusing on engaging students in the process of scientific inquiry. For his success in those projects, Landers, the Howard Carr Professor of Outreach in COSAM's Department of Physics, is the 2014 recipient of the Auburn University Award for Excellence in Faculty Outreach.

"Professor Landers' outreach in the area of STEM education and school engagement is truly innovative and outstanding," said Royrickers Cook, assistant vice president for University Outreach. "His efforts have resulted in nationally recognized programs that promote the sciences in our schools, enhance the academic skills of students and encourage students to pursue careers in high technology." The Award for Excellence is Auburn's highest recognition honoring the engagement of exemplary faculty members whose outreach is making a significant impact in the community.

Landers was raised in rural Kansas and attended Kansas State University on a National Merit Presidential Scholarship. He graduated with a B.S. in mathematics and physics in 1993 and then went on to earn his doctoral degree in atomic physics in 1999, also from Kansas State. After post-doctoral study and two years as an assistant professor at Western Michigan University, he joined the Department of Physics at Auburn in 2003.

A highly recognized scholar in the area of atomic, molecular and optical physics, Landers' work has received support through the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation. He has co-authored numerous publications on his work and has been published in high-impact journals such as Science and Nature. In addition to a vigorous research program, Landers teaches at all levels at the university, from the introductory science for non-science majors to graduate courses in physics. He has received multiple awards for his work at Auburn including the 2006 COSAM Teaching Award, the 2013 Most Outstanding Professor Award, presented to him by students in the physics curriculum, the 2013 Dean's Award for Outstanding Outreach and the Physics Department's Eugene Clothiaux Faculty Award for 2014.

Landers says outreach is a natural component of his overall scholarly activity. "There are a number of things that are critical to moving science forward," said Landers. "As a research scientist, I get to explore Nature and see beautiful phenomena, sometimes for the first time.  But those experiences aren't useful unless we go further by communicating them to society, generally through publications. At Auburn University we teach future scientists in the classroom and in our laboratories, which is one of the joys of being a member of the faculty. Through outreach, I'm able to communicate the fundamental philosophy of science and critical thinking to the public."

For Landers, outreach provides an important balance to his work. "It's all very rewarding, but I often feel like getting a few thousand students throughout the state to think more deeply about something simple is just as important as studying the complex quantum dynamics of a molecule in my laboratory."

Landers became involved in outreach soon after his arrival at Auburn. "It started quite simply through volunteering as a judge for various science or robotics competitions as a new assistant professor," he said. "When you see the 'lights come on' in the students faces, it is extremely rewarding. From then on I was hooked and wanted to do more."

The professor's outreach record includes three large-scale projects initiated and developed under his leadership. The Auburn University Summer Science Institute is an intensive one-week event designed for outstanding high school students – those with an average 30 ACT score. Now in its third year, the institute engages more than 20 COSAM faculty scientists in providing a variety of science experiences to students, including using an ion accelerator, collecting samples for DNA sequencing, dating geological samples with radioactive isotopes and astronomical observation of the night sky.

Another major program is the RE2-FoCUS Initiative which is designed to stimulate project-based STEM education throughout Alabama by facilitating teacher professional development in engineering and robotics education. The program received a three-year, $633,000 Math and Science Partnership award from the U.S. Department of Education through the Alabama State Department of Education. The program introduces modules through teacher professional development workshops that incorporate the use of active engagement tools such as robotics in the classroom to teach science and inspire students about STEM related careers. Joining Landers in this effort was Mary Lou Ewald, director of COSAM Outreach, and Chris Schnittka, an associate professor in Curriculum and Teaching.

STEM-IQ is a new science education enhancement project targeting students in underserved communities and engaging them in science activities culminating in exhibitions in both local and regional science fairs. The program has recently received funding from the NSF for a five-year, $742,000 grant to enable development of the initiative. The project was in collaboration with Ewald; Virginia Davis, a professor in chemical engineering; and Paul Cobine, an assistant professor in biological sciences.

Landers' engagement in these programs, as well as a variety of Science Olympiads, robotics competitions and science demonstrations, contribute to his deep conviction that science can inspire students. "Mr. Roger Diekmann was my science teacher in both eighth grade and in high school. He strongly encouraged me to explore, explore, explore – and then to think about it!"

This aspect of the study of science is Landers' primary objective to pass along to the students and teachers in his programs. "Science is the single pursuit that allows us to go straight to Nature to answer the questions, and that is best done through exploration. When we do professional development workshops with teachers, I see their excitement as they embrace new tools to use in their classroom. When we work with high school students, I see them 'turn on' to the possibilities of exploring Nature in a variety of ways."

Landers sees himself as a beneficiary of his outreach work as well. "Outreach at Auburn University has provided a mechanism for me to be a proselytizer of science, and even more importantly, the philosophy of science," he said. "The teachers and students we work with in our outreach programs inspire me to be a better researcher. It's a resonant effect, where my passion for science motivates working with teachers and students, which in turn energizes me as a scientist."

"Allen Landers is an exceptional professor," said James Hanson, chair of the Department of Physics in COSAM. "While he is an excellent physics teacher, and his ongoing research in experimental atomic and molecular physics is of very high quality, it is in the area of outreach that he really shines."

"Allen Landers has compiled an extremely impressive record of accomplishments in outreach," said COSAM Dean Nicholas Giordano. "I am particularly impressed by his leadership of important outreach projects that have impacted the lives of many thousands of Alabama students and teachers. It is this kind of leadership that has made outreach in COSAM and at Auburn University so successful!"

Landers says the support he receives from his college administration and peers means a great deal for his work scientist. "This award is recognition by my peers that the work has merit, which is wonderful," he said.

The feedback he gets from both teachers and students is especially fulfilling, he said. For example, a student in Lander's Summer Science Institute wrote, "Dr. Landers, your Science Institute was literally the most amazing adventure that I have ever experienced. You have helped me direct my future with confidence and perseverance."

"Seeing the look in a student's eyes when they understand a new concept," he said, "is award enough for me."

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