Dr. Kent Montgomery
Dr. Kent Montgomery joined the faculty of Texas A&M University-Commerce in January 2005 after spending the previous ten years teaching at a small liberal arts college in northern Georgia. Kent was raised in the wide open spaces of Montana and received his Bachelor’s degree in Physics and Mathematics from Montana State University. After a one year stint teaching high school, Kent returned to graduate school at San Diego State University pursuing, a Master’s degree in Astronomy. “I enjoyed graduate school so much I decided to continue on to get a Ph.D.,” Kent explains. This pursuit of a Ph.D. led him completely across the country to Boston University. Five years later in 1995, his Ph.D. was completed and Dr. Montgomery was hired as the Planetarium Director at Young Harris College in northern Georgia. After ten years in the Appalachian Mountains Kent was looking for a change when the opportunity to work at a university that was in the process of building a brand new planetarium became available. The excitement of building a program from the ground up was one of the many things that brought Kent to the A&M-Commerce community.
“I had two goals when I arrived on campus in 2005,” Kent states. “The first goal was to get the planetarium constructed and successfully running, and the second goal was to get an astronomy program going.” When he arrived at A&M-Commerce, the new science building was under construction and would be open for students in the spring semester of 2006. The astronomy program was even less well developed. There was only one astronomy class per semester with an enrollment of approximately thirty students.
Kent oversaw the completion and installation of the planetarium equipment and received system and software training. The planetarium opened at the end of January 2006 to exceptional crowds. “We more than met our attendance record that year,” Kent expounds. “That first year we had hoped for about 15,000 people to come through the planetarium. By the end of the first year we had more than 28,000 patrons.” Since the first year, the planetarium has slowed done some but still has had a steady attendance. By the end of 2011 over 109,000 people have attended over 2,700 individual planetarium shows. The biggest patrons of the planetarium are the school groups that come from all over northeast Texas.
To run the planetarium Kent has had to be able to interface many computers, learn 3D modeling techniques, and programing the planetarium software system. He has programmed many astronomy demonstrations that are currently used in astronomy classes. In addition, he has instructed and guided several students that have created scientific visualizations for the planetarium. One of the students created a scientific visualization of colliding galaxies and black holes as his Honor’s thesis.
To get a successful astronomy program going Dr. Montgomery realized they would need to offer more astronomy classes and promote the classes to the students. With the support of the administration a second course was approved and added to the curriculum. One advantage was that the astronomy classes would be taught in the planetarium. Kent explains, “Having a room like the planetarium to teach in creates a wonderful teaching environment. The students come in excited and ready to learn. The room helps to foster that.” Word quickly spread about the astronomy courses and though they are capped at 80 students they quickly fill up each semester. This enthusiasm of students for astronomy led Kent to pursue creating a minor in Astronomy. With help from the Physics Department Head, the administration, and the hiring of another astronomer, a minor in Astronomy was created with an additional three courses in astronomy. The minor became available to students in spring of 2010 and several students have graduated with minors in Astronomy.
Dr. Montgomery consistently receives very high ratings from his students. His excellence in teaching was recognized in spring of 2010 when he was awarded the Paul W. Barrus, “Distinguished Faculty Award for Teaching” and he has twice won the A&M System teaching excellence award. Students often comment how they love going to his class because not only do they learn things but he makes astronomy fun. They also comment about how his enthusiasm for the subject is contagious and makes them want to learn more. Kent teaches by asking lots of questions and utilizing many demonstrations. His teaching philosophy is to lead students from what they already know to what they don’t through guided questions.
Also during his seven years at A&M-Commerce, Kent, with the support of the administration, has built an observatory. The observatory is located about five miles south of campus at the back of an agricultural field in an area that shields observers from urban light pollution. The observatory currently has five telescopes, the largest of which is 16 inches and which is housed inside a dome. The 16-inch telescope also has a camera attached to it with which observers can take pictures of the night sky seeing things invisible to the naked eye. This camera has been used in multiple projects for honors students and most recently on a research program studying asteroids. The observatory is used both for astronomy classes as well as the public and about once a quarter the observatory will host an open house allowing the public to come and look through the telescopes to see the wonders of the universe.
In addition to his other duties this year, Kent is currently serving as Interim Physics and Astronomy Department Head until a successful search is completed.