Foothill Astronomy Instructor Is Recipient of National 2005 Innovation of the Year Award
July 07, 2005

For his development of the PHYSICS 12: Physics for Poets course, Foothill College Astronomy Instructor Andrew Fraknoi has been named the recipient of the 2005 Innovation of the Year Award by the League for Innovation in the Community College. Click to register for this innovaative class.

The five-unit, non-technical course, which is also known as "Everything You've Wanted to Know About Einstein's Work But Were Afraid to Ask", won as an innovative course because it treats some of the strangest and most abstract ideas of modern physics??relativity, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics??at the non-science major level, without math but with humor, analogies and thought experiments. It also combines science with the humanities, using novels, poems, science fiction stories, music and art to illustrate the effect that modern physics has had on many areas of human culture.

"Most non-science students, and even some science majors, are convinced that the work Einstein did is completely beyond their comprehension," Fraknoi said. "Indeed, Einstein's name has become synonymous with a kind of unworldly 'brainy-ness' that is completely out of the grasp of the ordinary person. The Physics for Poets course grew out of my conviction that Einstein's ideas, and other parts of our modern conception of the physical universe, are simply too beautiful and too important to be left out of the cultural heritage of our students."

Although other universities and colleges offer a physics course for non-science majors, and a few even offer a course where modern physics is emphasized, what makes the Foothill course innovative is that it focuses in an interdisciplinary way on a few key topics in modern physics-the concepts that have most changed humanity's understanding of the rules of the universe. For example, Foothill students learn about the general theory of relativity and its application to the death of the largest stars and time machines, the second law of thermodynamics and how it applies to the development of life in the universe, and the ideas of Stephen Hawking about quantum black holes-all explained with analogies and thought experiments, rather than with equations.

In addition to learning about physics, students also see the influence of modern physics on novels, poetry, music and philosophy. Students read at least one serious novel that draws its inspiration from physics in addition to the science material. They also learn about the life and times of key scientists such as Albert Einstein, Ernst Rutherford, Ludwig Boltzmann, Niels Bohr, Stephen Hawking and Marie Curie, and the turbulent epochs in which they lived.

Interestingly, the course has become Foothill's largest offering in physics, sometimes drawing more than 70 students per quarter, despite the fact that it is five units and requires attending the class two evenings a week. One of the best things about the course is the range of students that it attracts-from high school students with a passion for science or science fiction to retired couples who come to share their interests and to help each other with the mind-twisting ideas.

"The Physics for Poets course has enriched my life in both expected and unexpected ways," said Foothill student Robert C. Wilson. "I earned a history degree 30 years ago and have not had a chance to follow up on my interest in science until now. I'm getting so much more out of everything I am reading now, and I'm fascinated by the interplay between physics and other fields."

The development of the course took about a decade. Fraknoi read a wide range of sources both in physics and pedagogy to distill the key ideas and the best way to present them to audiences without mathematics. The course also uses slides, video and music appropriate to the subjects being discussed. This development was done on the instructor's own time, without any grants or released time.

The chairman the Astronomy Program at Foothill College in Los Altos (near San Francisco), Fraknoi teaches popular courses on introductory astronomy and "physics for poets" which are attended by more than 900 students each year. He has given more than 400 public lectures on such topics as Is There Worthwhile Real Estate (and Could There Be Real Estate Agents) on Other Worlds? and Why Falling into a Black Hole is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience.

Between 1978 and 1991, Fraknoi served as the executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, an international scientific and educational organization founded in 1889. He was also editor of its popular-level magazine, Mercury, and founded its newsletter for teachers, The Universe in the Classroom.

A prolific author, Fraknoi has edited two collections of science articles and science fiction stories for Bantam Books, and is the lead author of Voyages through the Universe (1997, 2000, 2004, Brooks-Cole/Thomson), which has become one of the leading introductory astronomy textbooks in the world.

Radio listeners know him as a frequent guest on local and national news and talk programs. In Northern California, he appeared regularly for over 20 years on the Jim Eason Show on KGO and KSFO. Recently, he has again become a regular on KGO on the Pete Wilson Program.

He has also been a frequent guest on the KQED Forum Program with Michael Krasny, and is the astronomer-in-residence on the syndicated Mark and Brian Show that is based in Los Angeles. Nationally, he has been heard regularly on Science Friday, Weekend All Things Considered and Sounds Like Science on National Public Radio. His television appearances include The Today Show, CBS Morning News and Larry King Live.

Fraknoi serves on the board of trustees of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute, a scientific and educational organization involved in identifying possible signals from civilizations around other stars. He is also a fellow of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), specializing in debunking astrology. Recently, he was elected a Fellow of the California Academy of Science.

In 1994, he received the Annenberg Foundation Prize of the American Astronomical Society (the highest honor in the field of astronomy education), as well as the Klumpke-Roberts Prize of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (given for a lifetime of contributions to popularizing astronomy.) He was the first recipient of the Carl Sagan Prize, given to a San Francisco Bay Area scientist whose activities in public education have been especially noteworthy.

Asteroid 4859 has been named Asteroid Fraknoi by the International Astronomical Union to honor his work in sharing the excitement of modern astronomy with students, teachers and the public.

The League for Innovation in the Community College serves nationally and internationally as a catalyst, project incubator, and experimental laboratory for community colleges around the world. The league is the only major international organization specifically committed to improving community colleges through innovation, experimentation and institutional transformation.
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