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From Comic Books to the Classroom
Who are NASA's Earth and Space Science Explorers?

The middle school students who track weather to study its effect on bursting tree buds. And the scientist studying black holes in distant galaxies. But also the teacher whose class shares Earth science data with students around the world. And the engineer who designs robotic instruments to probe hard-to-reach planets. All of these people are Earth Explorers, Space Science Explorers or both. The Earth Explorers and Space Science Explorers series features NASA explorers, young and old, with many backgrounds and interests.

Andrew Fraknoi

Andrew Fraknoi is an astronomy educator from California. Image Credit: Tucker Hiatt

It all began with comic books. Or so the legend in the Fraknoi family goes.

In many ways, Andrew Fraknoi's love of science did start with comic books. After his family escaped from Hungary and came to the United States when he was 11, Fraknoi spent a great deal of time reading comic books to learn English. "I was just fascinated by stories of outer space," Fraknoi says. As his language skills improved, he began to check science fiction books out of library and visit the planetarium regularly.

Growing up in New York City afforded Fraknoi many different opportunities to pursue science. After taking accelerated science and mathematics classes in middle school, Fraknoi went to high school at the Bronx High School of Science, where he took more science classes and joined the astronomy club. "I remember being a junior in high school and doing a paper on the mystery of quasars. I hadn’t realized before there were things in science we didn't know," Fraknoi recalls. He went to the library to do research and eventually found a technical symposium volume that had been recently published on the high-energy universe. Although Fraknoi did not understand all the information, he was enthralled by it and knew he wanted to be an astronomer.

Fraknoi studied astronomy at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. During his time at graduate school, he came to a realization: "Although I loved science and the research, I really fell in love with teaching." Teaching came naturally to Fraknoi, and he thrived on interactions with students.

During this time, Fraknoi was working as an editorial assistant for a science journal. He had taken creative writing classes in high school and became more interested in writing about science while helping to edit the journal. One of Fraknoi's professors in graduate school, Harold Weaver, noticed these interests and suggested he get involved with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, or ASP. Weaver was the president of the international organization and encouraged Fraknoi to speak with its new executive director about volunteering. Fraknoi eventually became a full-time employee of the ASP, then went on to work as executive director of the organization for 14 years. He helped to start programs like Project ASTRO™, which pairs classroom teachers with professional and amateur astronomers for year-long teaching collaborations.

Fraknoi is currently chair of the astronomy department at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., where he teaches full-time, working with over 1,000 students every year. His students are from ages 16 to 80, and he says he loves "getting older students who have been afraid of science all their lives and showing them how much fun astronomy can be."

Andrew Fraknoi and John Grunsfeld

Andrew Fraknoi poses for a picture with the "Hubble Repairman," astronaut John Grunsfeld. Image Credit: Astronomical Society of the Pacific

Fraknoi also is working with NASA's Higher Education Working Group to identify NASA programs and materials that would be useful for community college astronomy instructors. In 2010, Fraknoi was selected as a "Top Star" in a NASA-sponsored contest for educators. Fraknoi innovatively used Hubble Space Telescope images in an assignment that asked undergraduate students to map a future honeymoon trip in space, choosing the places they would want to visit along the way.

During the summers, Fraknoi continues to work on education with the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. He also spends time on public outreach, being a guest on radio programs and writing about science, to help the public to understand the current discoveries about the universe.

"I think we’re living at an absolutely remarkable time in astronomy," Fraknoi says. "When I first started in astronomy, the notion that we would be able not just to find but actually describe and learn about planets around other stars, to describe what they are like, was absolutely science fiction. And now here we are with over 700 planets known. The things we're learning, the way we're able now to do precision cosmology, to start to pin down the actual numbers that characterize the entire universe, to talk about how old the universe is, what kinds of things it does -- that's remarkable."

Fraknoi suggests that students interested in astronomy get involved with their local amateur astronomy club, as well as take advantage of online resources like NASA's website and his own Facebook page.

Related Resources:
› Teachers Honored as "Top Stars"
› Astronomical Society of the Pacific   →
› Andrew Fraknoi Facebook page -- The AstroProf   →
› Space Explorers Series
› NASA Career Resources

Brandi Bernoskie/Institute for Global Environmental Strategies