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Lopez pushing frontiers in space and science education

As a scientist, Ramon Lopez focuses much of his attention on magnetospheric physics and space weather, as well as solar wind variations and what information they provide about solar activity.

He's interested in subjects such as solar wind-magnetosphere coupling, magnetic storms and substorms, auroral dynamics and structure, current systems and particle energization.

Of equal importance to Lopez, however, is what's going on right here on terra firma in the area of science education. He's taken on a leading role in the effort to improve science education in the United States and address the problem of inadequate K-12 education in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Lopez, a professor of physics at UT Arlington since 2007, devotes copious time and energy to both research and education. He's the leader of a research group that is involved in space physics and education. He's co-director of UTeach Arlington, a teacher preparation program which has already enjoyed tremendous success. He is also active in K-12 education, pushing for higher education standards in science. Lopez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, is also a tireless advocate of increasing participation by minorities in the sciences.

His efforts have been noticed and recognized by his peers again and again. Most recently, he was named the 2012 winner of the Edward A. Bouchet Award by the American Physical Society (APS). The Bouchet Award was created to "promote the participation of under-represented minorities in physics by identifying and recognizing a distinguished minority physicist who has made significant contributions to physics research," according to the APS website.

In November, he was named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an international nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing science around the world. AAAS publishes the journal Science and serves some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, comprising 10 million people worldwide. He'll be formally inducted during the AAAS 2012 Annual Meeting in Vancouver, Canada in February.

"Science education is like a parallel career for me," Lopez said. "I like it personally; I find it very exciting to be able to be involved in educating kids and getting them excited about science in general and in physics specifically. The impact I can have in science education is far beyond my impact in magnetospheric physics."

Not that his impact in physics research hasn't been considerable. The Lopez group has made significant findings in solar wind-magnetosphere coupling, work supported by NASA and the NSF. Lopez's research group also is a part of the Center for Integrated Space Weather Modeling (CISM), a Science and Technology Center funded by the National Science Foundation for which Lopez is a co-PI and co-director for diversity. CISM research centers on creating computer models for space weather prediction, just as previous generations of scientists created the computer models now used weather prediction.

"Space weather - changes in the space environment that can affect human activities - is becoming more and more important to our technological and space-based civilization, so the ability to predict space weather events will be as important as the ability to predict major hurricanes," Lopez said.

Space weather is also the subject of a popular 2002 book co-authored by Lopez and Michael Carlowicz, titled Storms from the Sun. It explains why space weather matters and how solar flares, solar wind and other phenomena can have a major impact on a host of technologies on Earth upon which we depend.

Lopez's physics education research interests are primarily in issues related to spatial intelligence and visual cognition. He is an adjunct researcher with the Spatial Intelligence Learning Center, in addition to serving as vice chairman of the APS Forum on Education in 2003 and as chairman in 2005. Lopez has also served on various education-related committees of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and the APS, and as a member of the board of directors of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science). In the Fall of 2003, he was co-organizer of the introductory Calculus-Based Physics Course Conference, sponsored by the American Association of Physics Teachers.

With UTeach Arlington, Lopez is one of three co-directors, along with Greg Hale and Ann Cavallo, in charge of the program, which began in Fall 2010. UTeach Arlington, based on a template created by the first UTeach program at UT Austin, is a science and math secondary teacher preparation program which uses early field experiences in K-12 schools, guidance from Master Teachers, and scholarship and internship opportunities for students. It has already proved more popular than even Lopez and his fellow UTeach faculty and staff members had hoped, with waiting lists for students to begin the program.

"We need highly qualified teachers in public schools, and UTeach is a very important tool we can use to achieve that," Lopez said. "It's a critically important program, because we have to have students who are skilled in math and science, and that has to begin very early in their educational careers."

Lopez has served as a consultant for a number of school districts around the country, as well as other organizations, particularly the National Science Resources Center. He worked closely with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland to help implement a hands-on science program in the elementary and middle grades. He worked on the College Board Standards for College Success, co-authoring the physical science standards, and he was one of the authors for the 3rd edition of Active Physics. He is currently one of the leaders of the team developing the Next Generation Science Standards.

"Dr. Lopez is a wonderful asset for the College of Science and the University," Dean of Science Pamela Jansma said. "He is a terrific researcher and mentor, but even more important than that is his incredible commitment to science education and his passion for getting historically under-represented minorities involved in science. He has helped get our UTeach Arlington program off to a fantastic start. His efforts are helping ensure that the next generation of students will have a solid education in science."

Ramon Lopez
Ramon Lopez came to UT Arlington from the Florida Institute of Technology in 2007 after being recuited by the late Jim Horwitz.

Lopez came by his love of science and his belief in the importance of teaching early in life, at a time when the United States was exploring space and pushing to send a man to the moon.

"My mother was a teacher. As a kid, I told my parents I was going to become a physicist," he said. "I was always fascinated by atoms and what things were made of. I also enjoyed history, especially Roman history; I'd be a historian if I wasn't a physicist. But the main reason I became a space physicist was NASA and the space program."

Lopez was born in Maryland and spent his high school years in a small farming town in Illinois. He was an excellent student - so much so that he left high school early and tested well enough to enter the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He earned a B.S. in Physics from there in 1980, and then came to Rice University, where he earned an M.S. in Space Physics in 1984 and a Ph.D. in Space Physics in 1986. He earned his doctorate at age 25.
"If you push yourself, you can do all kinds of things," he said.

He worked seven years as a scientist with the Applied Research Corporation on contract with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. In 1992 he joined the faculty of the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was a research associate, then assistant director for research of the East-West Space Science Center, then associate research scientist in the Department of Astronomy.

In 1994, Lopez joined the APS as director of education and outreach programs while maintaining his appointment at the University of Maryland. "I had two half-time, full-time jobs," he said. From there he went to UT El Paso in 1999, where he served as Department of Physics chair for two years and was the C. Sharp Cook Distinguished Professor in Physics until 2004. He then went to the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne, Fla., as a professor in the Department of Physics and Space Sciences. In 2007, Lopez was recruited to come to UT Arlington by the late Jim Horwitz, a longtime friend who was chair of UT Arlington's Department of Physics. Lopez visited Arlington and was impressed.

"I saw all the construction going on around campus and listened to Jim's vision for the department, and I liked what I saw and what I heard," Lopez said. "I came here and moved my research group here from Florida. I believe it was a good decision because there were and are a lot of good things happening here, and the administration is perhaps the best of any place I've worked."

Lopez has received tens of millions of dollars in grants for research and educational projects as principal investigator or co-PI from NASA, NSF and other sources. Included in that total are a pair of $20 million, five-year grants for the CISM. He has served as thesis advisor for 13 post grad students and currently serves as thesis advisor for four UT Arlington grad students.

He also revived UT Arlington's dormant Society of Physics Students Arlington Chapter, a professional association designed for students, and serves as its advisor.

"Ramon is a very valuable member of the department," said Alex Weiss, physics professor and department chair. "He's very energetic, very enthusiastic, and he does a lot to promote the department. He's opened a whole new field to the department in physics education research, and he's been a huge boost to our space research program.

"He's done a lot with recruiting grad students, particularly minority grad students, and he's very involved with undergrad students and mentoring them as well. He's not only a great researcher but a great teacher, too."

Lopez has won numerous awards, including being elected a Fellow of the APS, the 2010 SACNAS Distinguished Scientist Award and the 2002 American Physical Society Nicholson Medal for Humanitarian Service to Science, which in typical humble fashion he says he was "very surprised to win; that was a real honor."

The Bouchet Award is another major honor, one which will allow him to make trips to three universities of his choosing in the coming year to deliver lectures and to interact with minority students interested in research and teaching careers in physics. Lopez says one of the visits will be to Florida International University, which emphasizes research as a major component of its mission.

Despite his numerous responsibilities, Lopez finds time to be a family man. He's been married 24 years to his wife, Ellen, and they have two kids; a daughter attending UT Arlington and majoring in music, and a son working on a doctorate in political theory at the University of Chicago. In his free time - of which there isn't much - Lopez likes to cook and read, especially about the history of food.

Posted January 24, 2012

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