Professor Dave Syndergaard inspires students to learn through his passion for astronomy

Dave Syndergaard, one of Utah Tech’s astronomy professors, does a great job engaging with his students and teaching them about astronomy and the many aspects of our solar system. Mia Tom | Sun News Daily

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Utah Tech University professor has an out of this world passion for science and shoots for the moon when instructing his classes.

David Syndergaard, a professor of physics at Utah Tech, currently teaches astronomy, a physics lab and a physics class. His love for science isn’t a recently found hobby. Rather, it has been with him since he was a child.

“When Sputnik was first launched, I was pretty little, but you could see it going overhead,” he said. “So my dad figured out when it was coming and where. I thought that was the coolest thing ever.”

Sputnik 1 piqued Dave’s interest in astronomy, and he later followed the news of the Gemini, Mercury and Apollo launchings. 

“I didn’t even understand that I was interested in science,” Dave said. “It just was something I was naturally fascinated in.”

Growing up in Kaysville, he later moved to California where he became tired of accounting and being an IRS agent. Dave then joined an Air Force scholarship program for engineers.

The scholarship program is called the Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program. Through this, Dave completed his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering.

Dave said the selection rate for this program when he applied was very slim and very competitive. 

“I went in charging hard,” he said. “I was an honor graduate from basic training and was an honor graduate from tech school for jet engines.”

As an air officer, Dave did space engineering, which included the task of using a specific type of laser, a free electron laser, to shoot down Soviet satellites. This involved the testing of lasers against different materials. Congress eventually defunded that specific program. 

“I was helping to produce something that was potentially going to keep us safe from other attacking satellites,” Dave said. 

He enjoyed figuring out how to operate military assets in space and how to protect them. He received awards, scholarships and degree offers. He now has two master’s degrees, one in systems engineering and one in astronomy. 

Dave said: “I wasn’t looking for [awards and recognition]. I just wanted to succeed and I was lucky enough to work for people who recognized what I was doing.”

After spending nearly 24 years in the Air Force, Dave retired. He was going to be sent to the Pentagon to start new aircraft acquisitions, which is something he didn’t really want to do. 

After his retirement from the Air Force, he started being a defensive contractor on a classified project. When the contract finished, he started to look around for a different job. 

That’s when Dave started to teach at the National Security Space Institute and the Air Force Academy. He also taught for the American Public University System until 2022 when he then started teaching at Utah Tech. 

“I still get nervous teaching, but one of the reasons I didn’t want to do the online stuff anymore… I miss the interactions working with students and answering their questions in real-time and helping them understand things,” Dave said. 

Kailee Thompson, a junior biochemistry major from North Ogden, said she really enjoyed listening to Dave’s lectures, and she could tell the passion he had for astronomy. 

“He is a super smart and fun guy who cares about his students just as much as he cares for astronomy,” Thompson said. 

Dave preparing for his physics class

Dave works on being less nervous when teaching despite his natural tendency to be more of an introvert. 

He said: “I no longer worry about what I look like or how I’m coming across. I just know that if I’m well prepared and that I work with the students and make sure they know that I care about them learning, then everything will be fine. The days of mere panic are long past thank goodness… I’ll do some positive self talk, take a couple breaths and go in and have some fun.”

Joe Steuber, a sophomore mechanical engineering major from Las Vegas, said Dave is always willing to answer any questions.

“The amount of stuff that he worked on and is knowledgeable about is astounding,” Steuber said. “His passion clearly bleeds through in every class and it’s infectious.”

Dave loves how astronomy is constantly evolving. He loves heliophysics, which is the study of the sun. He even has his own solar telescope. He loves stellar evolution, which is how stars are born and die. He also loves learning about moons, especially ones that have the potential for life

“There isn’t a topic I don’t like,” he said. “I’m trying to sell the university on an introduction to aerospace engineering course. I’m hoping that will take off eventually.”

Dave is also a range safety officer at Southern Utah Practical Shooting Park and volunteers at the animal shelter. He goes and visits secondary schools around St. George to do lectures and have the kids look through telescopes. 

His advice for teaching is if you don’t love the subject, then don’t teach it. 

“If you’re going to teach something, you have to love that topic so much that you want to share it with somebody else,” he said. 

For those interested in astronomy, Dave particularly likes astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s work. Dave’s advice is there are many good videos online for every aspect of astronomy that anybody can learn from. 

His last piece of advice is, “And of course, sign up for my class.”