ROE R. Cross Distinguished Professor

  • DeWayne A. Backhus
  • DeWayne A. Backhus

  • 1981 - DeWayne A. Backhus

  • Dr. DeWayne Backhus can look back at a severe drought, the Soviet Union, a book chapter written by M. King Hubbert, and the nature of science in a social context as the foundation of his career teaching in the Emporia State University Department of Physical Sciences.

    A native Kansan with roots in the rural area southeast of Abilene, Backhus grew up with a mother and father who had few educational opportunities. His father would always tell a rather humorous story about his sixth-grade education in a German-language-based parochial school. But he had the utmost respect for what education could do to help his children.

    “Also, a severe drought in the period from 1952 through 1956 provided ample evidence that the rural heritage as a way of life was not tenable for my one sibling and me,” said Backhus. “Thus, my lot in life would be shaped by additional formal education.”

    Backhus recalled a second event of significant influence as being what he described as a “superordinate event in the lexicon of social anthropologist Urie Bronfenbrenner.”

    It was the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit Earth, in 1957.

    “This shaped the specific nature of my subsequent education throughout high school, the choice of an undergraduate major, and ultimately decisions as a graduate student and for a career choice.”

    The so-called post-Sputnik fallout led America to energize its space program and its expectations for mathematics and science education in order to catch up.

    Another life influence was encouragement from chair of the ESU Mathematics Department, Dr. Marion Emerson, who strongly suggested Backhus, who obtained his bachelor’s from Emporia State in 1966, apply for a fellowship to a premier university. That led him to receive a prize fellowship funded by the National Science Foundation and Harvard University for his master’s degree. He later earned his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas.

    Then a book Resources and Man published in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences, specifically a chapter titled Energy Resources, written by M. King Hubbert, became another major force in molding the young Backhus.

    “[It] logically and persuasively developed a long-range scenario concerning the production and consumption of finite energy resources, i.e., our dependence on fossil fuels,” explained Backhus. “Then the first Middle East oil embargo occurred in early 1973; this provided further impetus for scholarly activity directed to sustainable energy development and management strategies. Issues related to developing and managing conventional and alternative energy sources occupied in varying degrees teaching, scholarly, and service involvements.”

    It is a field the now-retired Backhus continues to consult in.

    To complete the concert that became his life as an educator, was what he called the “nature of science,” and what we think of as the “scientific enterprise” within a social context.

    “I found a great deal of satisfaction, and positive feedback, from classes with students at the introductory level — both majors, but especially the general education student,” said Backhus. “Although not a primary course objective, I found that I could ‘hook’ some of the science anxious and adverse toward greater levels of interest and achievement than they might have anticipated.”

    Backhus recalled how “numerous even embarked on a major and career path in the sciences and/or technical fields. These interactions with students at the introductory level caused conscious thinking about the “nature of science” and the “enterprise” meaningful to students. I was not interested in just telling students, but helping them to understand in a logical fashion how we have developed conceptual insights.

    “Often termed epistemology, this can be stated in another way: what is the nature of an evidence-based versus a belief system way of knowing?”

    Backhus said his thoughts to a certain extent can be attributed to the influence of Carl Sagan, with whom I had lectures as a masters-level graduate student. This was further reinforced in the early 1980s with Sagan’s role in the Cosmos television series.

    Backhus said, “The fundamental ‘takeaway’ is that apparently I have made a difference in the lives of students with whom I have interacted, particularly in the classroom, but also as an advisor or mentor beyond the classroom.”

    He advocates a “tough love approach to the present, but with optimism for students to develop the necessary career and life skills to cope with future challenges and thus enable a more fulfilling future, collectively and individually.”

    And he is a proponent of following personal interests rather than chasing a career as the objective. Although he added that “a career can be inevitable if one nurtures talents and interests.”

    Which begs the question: What does Backhus do when he is not engaged in his beloved fields of education and science?

    He returns to his farm roots and enjoys his huge collection of toy tractors and other items of related memorabilia.

    “It’s therapy for me,” said Backhus, who has more than 3,000 toy tractors in his basement museum, in a 2001 interview with the Emporia Gazette. “It keeps me going. It makes me happy.”