The Heights

Updated: December 19, 2016


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Sun is setting on your opportunity to study with Foothill’s award-winning astronomy instructor

The sun is setting on your opportunity to study astronomy with Andrew Fraknoi, Foothill’s award-winning astronomy instructor. The founder of the Silicon Valley Astronomy Lecture Series, Fraknoi has announced that he will retire at the conclusion of Spring Quarter 2017, which means you have just three quarters–Fall 2016, Winter 2017 and Spring 2017–to take one or several of Fraknoi’s good-humored introductory astronomy classes.

“Teaching 900 non-science major students each year, I see first-hand the interest in science that a good introductory astronomy course can create,” Fraknoi says. “Students often take my course to satisfy a general education requirement, but when the class ends, they’re enthusiastic fans of black holes, cannibal galaxies, or the search for intelligent life out there.

“As we can see from all the people eager to stick their heads in the sand and deny such basic notions of science as evolution and climate change, there is an enormous need for science education in this country,” he says. “It’s been a privilege for me to help students of all ages and backgrounds who come to Foothill appreciate the excitement of all the new ideas and discoveries in astronomy.”

This fall, Fraknoi will teach ASTRO 10B, a class that’s affectionately nicknamed “astronomy without tears.” The five-unit course, which transfers to the CSU and UC systems, will introduce you to the stars, galaxies and Big Bang universe. The class will also feature lively discussion about the exciting new planets being discovered around other stars. The course includes a free electronic copy of the non-technical textbook for which Fraknoi is the lead author, and does not require you to have a math or science background.

“There’s a lot of exciting news in astronomy. We’ll study the recent discovery of gravity waves from pairs of black holes that can’t resist each other; the discovery of more planets that resemble Earth, including, it appears, one around the nearest star; what will be done with the $100 million that a local billionaire has pledged to the search for alien signals; and next year’s ‘All-American’ solar eclipse to name a few,” he says.

Ideal for curious high school students*, college students working to complete general education requirements, and community members who want personal enrichment, Foothill will offer two sections of the ASTRO 10B course this quarter:

  • The daytime section of ASTRO 10B meets Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, September 26–December 15, from noon to 1:25 p.m.
  • The evening section meets Tuesdays and Thursdays, September 27–December 15, from 6 to 8:15 p.m.
  • An associated one-unit astronomy lab course, ASTRO 10L, is also offered this fall.

Registration is ongoing through September 25. For registration instructions, visit foothill.edu/admissions.php.

An award-winning educator who has taught college-level astronomy courses for more than four decades, Fraknoi says that encouraging students to look up and wonder has been the overarching goal of his career. Named California Professor of the Year in 2007 by the Carnegie Endowment for Higher Education, Fraknoi has received state, national and international awards for his outstanding skill of interpreting astronomical discoveries and ideas in everyday language, often with a dose of humor. 

Educated at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, Fraknoi appears regularly on radio and television programs to explain scientific ideas and discoveries in everyday language. Radio listeners know him as a frequent guest on local and national news and talk programs. In Northern California, he appeared for more than 25 years on the Jim Eason Show and Pete Wilson Show on KGO, and was a regular on the Gil Gross Program on KKSF. He was also the astronomer-in-residence on the syndicated Mark and Brian Show. Nationally, he has been heard on NPR’s Science Friday and Weekend All Things Considered. His television appearances include The Today Show, MSNBC, CBS Morning News and Larry King Live. Fraknoi is one of the most regular guests on KQED’s The Forum Program with Michael Krasny.

His longstanding, distinguished service to the professionalization of astronomy education recently made Fraknoi the perfect recipient of the Pinnacle Professor Award, which is presented annually at the National Astronomy Teaching Summit. The award honors a distinguished educator who is recognized by peers for positively impacting the teaching of astronomy across the country. “I’m especially honored to receive an award like this because I was selected by my peers in astronomy teaching,” he says. “They all face the same challenge I do, which is how to make modern astrophysics accessible to beginning students and show that it is part of the human heritage.”

“As an individual, Andrew Fraknoi has perhaps influenced more astronomy professors–and their countless numbers of astronomy students–than anyone else teaching astronomy today,” says National Astronomy Teaching Summit Award Committee Chair Timothy Slater, Ph.D., of the University of Wyoming.

The recipient of the Gemant Prize of the American Institute of Physics for a lifetime of contributions to physics popularization and connecting physics to the humanities, Fraknoi also has had a longtime interest in astronomically correct science fiction, which he uses in his teaching and writing. Recently, he began writing science fiction himself. His first story has been published in the Building Red: Mission Mars anthology edited by Janet Cannon. His second story will be featured in an anthology of science fiction by scientists, set for publication by Springer later this year.

Most recently, Fraknoi teamed up with Dennis Schatz, the senior advisor at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, to co-author Solar Science: Exploring Sunspots, Seasons, Eclipses, and More (National Science Teachers Association Press). This summer, the book received the 2016 Gold EXCEL Award from Association Media & Publishing. 

The new book is especially timely for educators and libraries that want to explain what some astronomers are calling the “All-American” solar eclipse, which will occur next summer. This will be the first total eclipse to cross the U.S. from shore to shore in our country’s history. The total solar eclipse will be seen in a narrow path starting on a beach in Oregon and ending on the coastline of South Carolina. An estimated 500 million people will see the partial eclipse, which will look as if a big bite has been taken out the sun. “Astronomers who are experts on eclipses are calling the 2017 eclipse ‘the sky event of the decade,’” Fraknoi says. “On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun will be visible in one country, and one country only, the U.S.”

The author of Disney’s Wonderful World of Space and the lead author of several successful introductory astronomy textbooks for college non-science majors, Fraknoi is also an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC). The prestigious honor is bestowed on only 15 living people at a time, an elite group that also includes Stephen Hawking, and once included such noted astronomers as Harlow Shapley and Ejnar Hertzsprung. Fraknoi was the first community college educator selected for the honor in RASC’s 143-year history. “His work represents the global gold standard in astronomy education and outreach,” says RASC’s Mary Lou Whitehorne. “Andrew Fraknoi has inspired many to follow in his footsteps. He is nothing short of phenomenal–passionate, inspiring, dedicated and caring. He has been my personal role model for more than 20 years and is unquestionably deserving of honorary membership status.”

Before joining the Foothill College faculty, Fraknoi served as the executive director of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He founded Project ASTRO, a national program in which volunteer astronomers adopt a 4th- through 9th-grade classroom, and work with teachers to bring hands-on astronomy experiences to students. An offshoot, called Family ASTRO, provides games and activities that families can engage in to increase their understanding of astronomy. 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. To share the excitement of astronomy with an even larger audience, Fraknoi now chronicles astronomy developments and news through his Facebook page, The Astro-Prof

When the chairman of Foothill’s astronomy department retires in June, Fraknoi will have taught astronomy classes at several Bay Area schools, including Cañada College, City College of San Francisco, San Francisco State University, University of California Extension Division, as well as 25 years at Foothill College.

“The 2016–2017 academic year marks my 45th year teaching introductory astronomy,” he says. “In all that time, I’ve been privileged to see astronomy expand to new vistas, including the discovery of thousands of planets orbiting other stars, and it’s been a pleasure to be able to translate the results of our exploration of the universe into everyday language for several generations of students.”

For more information about the Foothill College Astronomy Program and Fraknoi, visit foothill.edu/ast. For registration instructions, visit foothill.edu/admissions.php.

*High school students may concurrently enroll in college-level courses at Foothill with parental and school principal permission. To learn more and download required permission forms, visit foothill.edu/hs/.

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