Lucas Johnson beside President Ken Tucker at UWA commencement

Story: Lisa Sollie | Photos: Betsy Compton

Over the past four years at the University of West Alabama, Lucas Johnson has distinguished himself through innovative teaching strategies designed to engage students and create a dynamic learning environment that promotes peer mentorship and deepens understanding. Johnson received the 2024 William E. Gilbert Award for Outstanding Teaching for his efforts during one of UWA’s May 3 commencement exercises. Given annually by the student body, the Gilbert Award recognizes outstanding teaching and excellence in undergraduate classroom instruction. 

“Lucas’s commitment to advancing the field of physics and inspiring the next generation of scientists is genuinely commendable,” noted Dr. Jeffery Merida, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UWA. “His commitment to using data-driven methods to enhance educational outcomes embodies the spirit of the Gilbert Award.”

When Johnson was a young boy, he and his father often gazed at and explored the Alabama nighttime sky through a powerful telescope they kept in their basement. His fascination with the distant galaxies led Johnson to the classroom, where he taught middle and high school science for half a decade before he earned master’s and doctoral degrees in astrophysics from the University of Alabama. In 2020, he joined the UWA faculty as an assistant professor of physics and astronomy.

Johnson, Merida noted, also extends his passion for physics through meaningful community engagement with local high schools, inspiring students with engaging physical science and biology lab demonstrations designed by him, Dr. Roger Campbell, associate professor and chair of the Department of Physical Sciences, and other colleagues in UWA’s College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Clearly taken back when his name was announced, Johnson expressed his thanks to “whoever put my name in the hat and to whatever students whose lives I touched.” Addressing the graduates, he continued, “I always tell my students every year I know I have succeeded if you leave better than when you came in my doors. And for so many of you today, I’ve seen that demonstrated through your actions, words to each other, successes in your other courses, and what the few of you who have graduated through my classes have told me about your lives after leaving UWA. Again, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.”

As the recipient of the Gilbert Award, Johnson will serve as macebearer and lead the faculty processional at the University’s commencement exercises in December and May.

Amanda Pendergrass, an associate professor of early childhood education, and the 2023 William E. Gilbert Award winner, with Lucas Johnson after spring commencement ceremonies.


The William E. Gilbert Award for Outstanding Teaching recognizes excellence in classroom instruction in the undergraduate programs at UWA. The award was established through an endowed fund by William L. Gilbert in memory of his son, William E. Gilbert, a history professor at the University from 1970 to 1977. It is further supported in part by an endowment by Mr. and Mrs. L.G. Cunningham in memory of Mrs. Cunningham’s mother, Mrs. Loraine McIlwain Bell. The recipient is selected by a student committee whose members are nominated by the deans and chairpersons of the academic units following open nominations.