BROOKINGS – Joel Rauber needs no explanation of Newton’s Laws of Motion and come June 21 the South Dakota State University physics professor is ready to demonstrate the first of Newton’s laws.
That’s the one about objects at rest remaining at rest unless an equal or greater force acts against it. Rauber will remove from the equation the force that is produced by a clanging alarm clock.
The department head will be retiring from SDSU after 32 years at the only school where he has ever taught. He has been department head since 2008.
SDSU might not have been the place where one would have expected Rauber to land, but another law of physics was at work.
“In a field like physics, you choose your discipline, not your geographic location,” said Rauber, who grew up in Decatur, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, and skipped his senior year in high school to enroll at Emory University in Atlanta. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 1978 and then a doctorate in the field from the University of North Carolina in 1985.
He went directly from Chapel Hill to the College on the Hill, where he was hired by Gerald Tunheim as the 11th member of the SDSU physics faculty.
“When I came in, the department had one small personal computer located in one location. Most people were working on mainframes. My first set of tests was on the old mimeographs. I actually learned how to do that myself because I didn’t think I could meet the lead times set by the department secretary.
“Gradebooks have gone away from the little blue ledger books to flash drives and spreadsheets,” said Rauber, whose office location is a little better now, too.
For years, the department was located on the third floor of Crothers Engineering Hall with no air conditioning. In 2009, the department moved into the second floor of just-built Daktronics Engineering Hall. Labs built just for physics demonstrations are just down the hallway from Rauber’s comfortable department head office.
Laws of nature don’t change
As for classroom content, well, the apple still falls from the tree. Gravity and other laws of physics are as constant as they were when Newton discovered them in the 17th Century.
“Physics is a very mature discipline. The content is pretty similar to what it was when I was in school. This is in contrast to life sciences. In physics, there has not been textbook-erasing change because the fundamentals are still the same. What is being taught at beginning levels hasn’t changed much,” Rauber said.
Of course, the methods of delivering and explaining F=ma (force equals mass times acceleration) have experienced monumental changes.
The production required to show a movie in class now is as simple as the instructor using his internet-connected laptop to display a video on the in-classroom screen. Does the student understand what was shown? Ask the students and have them respond with their clickers, wireless classroom response tools that identify users.
At SDSU, and most universities, physics is primarily a department supporting other academic areas with a small percentage of students becoming majors.
For example, depending on the year, 1,200 to 1,400 students take a physics course during the school year but less than 20 major in physics. Also, fewer majors are requiring introduction to physics. So the 11 faculty required when Rauber began in 1985 is now down to eight. The new number of students served has dropped by about one-third.
Undergraduate research now common
Part of that also is due to the recession-prompted 2011 budget cuts that eliminated the master’s and collaborative doctorate programs.
Elimination of the graduate program created a windfall for undergraduates to get involved in research projects with faculty members. Rauber remembers visiting with a bright high school student and his parents during a campus visit. Jace Waybright, then a senior at Lincoln (Nebraska) East High School, wanted to get involved early in undergraduate research.
“I actually got him connected with a faculty member to participate in research during the summer prior to school starting,” Rauber said.
Waybright, who just completed his freshman year at State, explained, “I wanted to get started in physics research early on to prepare myself for graduate school. Dr. Rauber made this possible. He connected me with another member of the department, Dr. (Parashu) Kharel, who I got to work with as part of a faculty-student pair at an undergraduate research program over the summer at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“We worked on synthesizing and studying the structural and magnetic properties of Heusler compounds, which are a specific type of alloy. This was an invaluable experience for me to learn research techniques and the process of creating and publishing scientific literature. I'm very grateful that Dr. Rauber gave me this excellent opportunity,” Waybright said.
“In the last five years, almost all of our majors have gotten involved in undergraduate research; usually as juniors or seniors,” Rauber said.
Of course, not all students are as focused as Waybright. Rauber recalls a student early in his career who dropped out after his sophomore year to spend even more time with a traveling band. He later got married, returned to school with a new focus and went on to have a successful engineering career, Rauber said.
“He was not the smartest student in the class, however, he was the most motivated and was the best performer in the course. Motivation is more important than raw intelligence. It helps develop tenacity,” he said.
David Aaron, who served on the faculty with Rauber for 23 years before retiring himself in June 2016, said of Rauber, “Both as a teacher and as department head, Joel has always put students as the number one priority for the university. If a student comes to him with either a problem or a proposal for research, Joel will always listen carefully and then do his best to either advise the student or to find the resources to allow them to pursue their interests.
“One particular case was a student who had done an internship with a NASA facility in Houston. Part of the work was a feasibility study on the development of a ‘warp drive’ for spacecraft propulsion. Upon returning to SDSU, the student wanted to continue to test the apparatus he had been working with in Houston.
“Joel was able to assist him in getting some parts and space to successfully continue the project. This is the kind of thing that Joel quietly does to help out the students.
"As far as faculty and staff, Dr. Rauber has always been a consensus builder; both when he was a department member and after he became department head. He works with each of us as individuals and takes our thoughts and concerns into mind.”
The next department leader – on an interim basis – will be professor Yung Huh, who has been in the department since 2002.
Planning to take a long hike
For Rauber, who had heart surgeries in 2002 and 2014, retirement will mean relaxation, travel and hiking. Now 59, Rauber has a goal of completing a “thru-hike” of the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail. That means covering the entire trail in one trip. He has twice completed the trail in multiyear sections and now is working on his third time.
Last year, he walked 189 miles of West Virginia in 13 days with his nephew, who works for the military. Faculty meetings won’t crowd his schedule this year.
However, he does have a family to return home to. His wife, Maria Ramos, is on the modern languages and global studies faculty. They have a daughter Anna, who is a 15-year-old sophomore at Brookings High School. So Brookings will continue to be home to the transplanted Southerner, whose accent has worn away like the tread on his hiking shoes.
“My entire professional career has been here. I have no regrets whatsoever … I’m proud to call SDSU and Brookings my home,” Rauber said.
His retirement celebration is 3-4:30 p.m. Wednesday in Daktronics Engineering Hall Room 270 with the program beginning at 3:30 p.m.