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Foothill College Astronomy Instructor Receives 2009 Hayward Award for Excellence in Education

Foothill College Astronomy Instructor Andrew Fraknoi is one of four community colleges teachers to be named recipient of the 2009 Hayward Award for Excellence in Education by the California Community College Board of Governors. The four faculty members were selected from across the state for their commitment to professional excellence in their fields as well as their contributions to their community.

In honor of former state chancellor Gerald C. Hayward, the award honors community college faculty members who demonstrate the highest level of commitment to their students, college and profession. Recipients are nominated by their local peers and selected as winners by representatives of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. In addition to excellence in teaching, they must have a record of outstanding performance in professional activities as well as a record of active participation on campus.

Fraknoi has spent his career improving the accessibility of astronomy to students and community members being served by Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. A resident of San Francisco, he is known for his skill in interpreting astronomical discoveries and ideas in everyday language. In 2008, he was awarded the prestigious American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award. He was selected as California Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2007. Fraknoi's Physics for Poets: Everything You Wanted to Know about Einstein but Were Afraid to Ask course received the 2005 Innovation of the Year Award from the League for Innovation in the Community College.

"I am honored and grateful for this award," Fraknoi said. "My mission in life has been to share a cosmic perspective and my love of the scientific method with students for whom science has been a challenge.

"Many august scientific societies have made official statements on the challenges to our modern understanding of science. But such statements mean nothing to the average student. It's up to those of us in the trenches of modern education--and there are few trenches as full of the nitty gritty of real life as the community colleges--to show students the real power of critical thinking, of evidence-based judgment, and of the skeptical use of their rational minds. This is the challenge I relish every quarter I teach. I thank Foothill College very much for giving me the privilege of teaching there and I thank all of you for recognizing the value in that teaching," Fraknoi said.

Foothill students praise Fraknoi's ability to translate difficult concepts into entertaining and conceptually relevant instruction. "You are one of the best teachers I have found in all of my scholastic studies," said Robin Forsberg of Fraknoi. "You share your knowledge, rather than show it off. You provide us with an opportunity to understand and enjoy. You are providing a great service to your students, Foothill College, and the community."

"I believe that an understanding of our place in the wider universe and the methods of science are part of the birthright of everyone living on our planet," Fraknoi said. "Yet, the way science is taught in this country can often discourage non-science majors from taking a lifelong interest--or even a course-long interest--in science. My philosophy is to show students that science is engaging, human, and part of our cultural heritage. An example of this is the interdisciplinary Physics for Poets class I have developed, where I discuss and get students involved with Einstein's work using analogies, demonstrations, cartoons, and examples from the student's own experiences, without using an excess of mathematics. Once they internalize the concepts, we read stories and a novel that are illuminated by an understanding of the science--and even play music inspired by Einstein's work."

Fraknoi does everything he can to make his classes fun, including using visuals, reading poems, recommending science fiction stories, and even doing a moon-revolution or pulsar-beam dance in front of the class.

"I try to communicate science in everyday language, drawing the students in, instead of pushing them away," Fraknoi said. "My astronomy courses stress the larger themes of the vast scales of space and time, varieties of nature, and intricate beauty of the subatomic world. I spend time in each class talking about the history of women and minorities in science, and showing what a waste it is to exclude anyone from the pleasure of science. I am so delighted when students who have not succeeded in science before tell me that, for the first time, they 'get it' and understand why people are excited about science."

"I can't tell you how fascinating it was for me to have had the opportunity to learn about stars, galaxies, and the universe from you," said former Foothill student Cathy Stepanek of Fraknoi. "Your excitement about the topic is contagious. Thank you for inviting questions and for your clear and thorough explanations. Your humor, knowledge, and the historical, cultural, and musical references were very much appreciated. I am now in awe of this universe and our ability to understand it. It is a privilege to have been your student."

Fraknoi credits his success to the numerous great teachers he himself learned from throughout his career. In fact, he feels so strongly about providing a forum for experienced instructors to share their approaches with colleagues who are new to the field that he developed the Cosmos in the Classroom Symposia, a series of workshops on new ways of teaching introductory astronomy. The first symposium began in 1996, with just a California group of instructors. It has steadily expanded and now meets every three years. The group's last meeting in 2007 brought together nearly 200 instructors from around the country for three days of hands-on workshops and networking. To defray costs, Fraknoi obtained NASA grants for scholarships, so that part-time instructors and those from colleges that serve significant numbers of minority students, but have no travel funding, could also attend. "Every good teacher of astronomy can touch the lives of so many thousands of students over the years and nurturing a new generation of good teachers is something that is very much worth our best efforts," he said.

Ten years ago, Fraknoi founded the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series, which has grown to be one of the most popular events at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills. For many of these free lectures, Foothill's 900-seat theater is filled to overflow capacity with crowds eager to hear current developments in astronomy from world-renowned scientists. The slate of impressive guest lecturers who have presented at Foothill College include the first woman in history to discover a planet, a U.S. astronaut, a winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, and the discoverer of the dwarf planet beyond Pluto.

Radio listeners know Fraknoi as a frequent guest on local and national news and talk programs. In Northern California, he currently appears on the Gil Gross Show on KGO Newstalk AM 810, and was a regular on the Jim Eason Show and Pete Wilson Show on the same station. He has also been a regular guest on Forum with Michael Krasny on KQED, and is the astronomer-in-residence on the syndicated Los Angeles-based Mark & Brian Show. Nationally, he has been heard on Science Friday and Weekend All Things Considered on National Public Radio.

A prolific author, Fraknoi co-edited The Planets and The Universe, two collections of science articles and science fiction stories for Bantam Books in the 1980s. His children's book on astronomy, Wonderful World of Space, was published by Disney in 2007, and features astronomy puns using Disney and Pixar film characters.

The four Hayward Award recipients, each from different areas of the state, are selected and honored annually at the March board of governors' meeting. The candidates are evaluated on their commitment to education; serving students; community colleges, including support for open access and helping students succeed; serving the institution through participation in professional and/or student activities; and serving as a representative of the profession beyond the local institution. A $1,250 cash award and plaque is presented to each recipient. In addition to Fraknoi, the 2009 award recipients are Shasta College Vocal & Choral Music Instructor Elizabeth Waterbury, Antelope Valley College Physics Instructor Christos Valiotis, and Golden West College Counselor Stephanie Dumont.

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is a nonprofit professional organization for the faculty of 110 California community colleges. It serves 60,000 faculty members throughout the state who impact millions of students annually. For more information, access www.asccc.org.