Andrew Fraknoi, the chair of the Astronomy Department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California, has won the 2013 Faraday Science Communicator Award from the National Science Teachers’ Association (NSTA), given each year to an individual who has inspired and elevated the public’s interest in science. Previous winners of this prize, which is co-sponsored by the Discovery Channel, include Ira Flatow, the host of NPR’s “Science Friday.” Fraknoi will accept the award at the NSTA National Conference in San Antonio, Texas April 12.
The award is named in honor of Michael Faraday (1791–1867), the British physicist whose pioneering experiments are the basis for our understanding of electricity, magnetism, and the relationship between the two. In addition to his work in basic science, Faraday was known as a clear writer and dynamic lecturer, who devoted much effort to explicating the scientific ideas and discoveries of his time to non-scientists. Albert Einstein had a picture of Faraday in his study and many other scientists have held him in great esteem. “I am especially honored to receive this award because Michael Faraday is one of my scientific heroes,” Fraknoi said. “I teach about him in my ‘Physics for Poets’ evening class, and I have always admired his legendary dedication to explaining science to the wider public.” Fraknoi also noted that “Faraday was a great proponent of rigorous, skeptical thinking and recognizing how easy it is for the mind to deceive itself. I too try to encourage students and the public to examine claims at the fringes of science with skepticism and fact-based thinking.”
Fraknoi, who was named California Professor of the Year in 2007by the Carnegie Endowment for Higher Education, has spent much of his 40-year career on both college-level teaching and the popularization of science—through his work explaining astronomy in the media, presenting workshops for K–12 teachers, and organizing (and sometimes offering) public lectures on astronomical developments. For example, since 1999, he has been the driving force behind the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lectures, which brings noted astronomers (including a Nobel laureate and several National Medal of Science winners) to the large theater at Foothill College to give public lectures. Between 400 and 900 people attend each talk in person, and thousands more see the recorded versions on iTunes and YouTube. Fraknoi’s popular-level public lectures, laced with humor, include such topics as “What Were the Atoms in Your Body Doing 8 Billion Years Ago and Why Should You Care?,” “Are There Real Estate Agents on Other Worlds?,” and “Where in the Solar System Will Bill Gates’ Great-Great Granddaughter Go for Her Honeymoon?”
Since the early 1980s, Fraknoi has appeared on local and national radio and television, explaining astronomical developments in everyday language. In Northern California, he appeared for more than 30 years on The Jim Eason Show, The Pete Wilson Show and The Ronn Owens Show on KGO. He is also a regular on The Gil Gross Program on KKSF. He has also been a frequent guest on The Forum Program (with Michael Krasny) on KQED, and was the "astronomer-in residence" on the syndicated Mark and Brian Show out of Los Angeles. Nationally, he has been heard on Science Friday and Weekend All Things Considered on National Public Radio. His TV appearances include The Today Show, MSNBC,CBS Morning News and Larry King Live.
Fraknoi is the lead author of a series of nationally adopted textbooks in astronomy, called “Voyages through the Universe,” has written a children’s book (entitled Disney’s Wonderful World of Space) and has co-edited two collections of science and science fiction about the universe. With Dr. Sidney Wolff, he founded the electronic journal Astronomy Education Review, which is the main place that scholarly research about astronomy education is published in the U.S. Among his other writings have been a syndicated newspaper column on astronomy, educational materials for the websites of two PBS documentaries, and a widely used series of educational resource guides on such topics as women in astronomy, debunking astronomical pseudo-science, and astronomy apps for smart phones and tablets.
Before coming to Foothill College, Fraknoi served for 14 years as the executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, an international scientific and educational organization, headquartered in San Francisco. While there, he created Project ASTRO, a program that trains and links volunteer astronomers with 4th–9th grade teachers in regional centers around the country, and FamilyASTRO, which provides games and kits that allows families with children to enjoy astronomy together. He also organized a series of workshops and conferences about the teaching of astronomy, both at the K–12 and college level, and developed a collection of classroom astronomy activities (called The Universe at Your Fingertips), which is used in educational settings around the world.
Fraknoi has been elected a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences and an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (an honor given to only 15 living astronomers at a time). He serves on the Board of Trustees of the SETI Institute and is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, specializing in debunking astrology and other astronomical pseudo-sciences. He received the 2007 Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics for the popularization of physics (an honor he shares with Dr. Stephen Hawking). To recognize his work in astronomy education, the International Astronomical Union has renamed Asteroid 4859 Asteroid Fraknoi (although he hastens to reassure everyone that the chunk of cosmic rock with his name on it is in the main asteroid belt, and poses no danger to planet Earth). He has recently begun offering a Facebook page called The Astro-Prof that features astronomical developments. Access The Astro-Prof at www.facebook.com/Fraknoi.
The National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), founded in 1944, is the largest organization in the world committed to promoting excellence and innovation in science teaching and learning for all. NSTA’s current membership of 60,000 includes science teachers, science supervisors, and others involved in and committed to science education. Learn more at www.nsta.org.