Almost three decades ago, Downing, now chair of the Stephen F. Austin State University Department of Physics and Astronomy located in Nacogdoches, Texas, sat in a banquet hall at a meeting of the Texas Section of the American Association of Physics Teachers. Downing was in his rookie year of teaching at SFA and eager to meet other teaching professionals in his field.
A University of Texas physics professor, who was Downing's senior by more than 30 years, sat next to him. The two men had a friendly conversation about the teaching profession as they awaited announcement of the teacher who would receive the first-ever TSAAPT Award for Outstanding Contributions to Physics Higher Education in Texas.
"As I sat listening to the speaker note all the wonderful accolades about the recipient, I got chill bumps," Downing said. "The honoree's name had not been announced beforehand, and we were all eager to learn whom these impressive credentials belonged to. What a thrill it was to be a junior faculty member sitting in the same banquet hall with a physics teacher who was held in such high regard by his peers."
When the recipient's name was announced, the man sitting next to Downing rose and started toward the podium. That man, Dr. Robert N. Little, later would have the award named after him.
Little's impact on physics instruction was far reaching. He played a major role in establishing core physical science courses for middle and high school students. He was an experimental nuclear physicist and taught many workshops for physicists and physics teachers. Little conducted research and experiments in some of the top laboratories in the United States, including serving as chief of nuclear physics for General Dynamics in Fort Worth.
On the evening of March 4, 2005, Downing again sat in a banquet hall attending the annual meeting of TSAAPT. This year, the meeting was held at SFA.
"As I sat and listened to the speaker detail the professional contributions of this year's award recipient, tears came to my eyes," Downing said. "It was becoming apparent that she was describing me."
When the speaker announced his name, Downing approached the podium and accepted the Robert N. Little Award for Outstanding Contributions to Physics Higher Education in Texas as 230 of his colleagues and friends honored him with a standing ovation.
"After receiving my plaque, I told the story of my first encounter with Dr. Little," Downing said. "I reflected back some 30 years ago to a time when I was new in the teaching profession and remembered a man who, even though I had only talked with him briefly, had a profound effect on my teaching career and that of so many others. This is undoubtedly the most prestigious teaching award I have ever received."
As Downing departed the stage, his wife of 39 years, Carolyn, greeted him. "I guess the association notified my wife beforehand that I was to receive the award. I was completely overcome with happiness, and it was made even more special with my best friend there to share it with me," Downing said.
Downing is in his 30th year of teaching at SFA. He has been department chair for 17 years. He served as president of TSAAPT from 1996-97; president elect, 1995-96; and vice president, 1994-95. He has authored several papers and lab experiments and edited many locally produced lab manuals. He received SFA's College of Sciences and Mathematics Teaching Excellence Award, conducted 27 workshops in physical science, served on 31 Master of Science in natural science defenses, and several Jamison Bill committees, which serves to encourage mature people, who hold degrees from accredited institutions, to become teachers. Downing also was awarded the Outstanding Society of Physics Students Adviser in 1993.