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Franek honored with President's Award for Outstanding Service

Joseph "Joe" Franek, the Department of Chemistry's lecture demonstration director, has received the President's Award for Outstanding Service. This prestigious award honors current and retired employees who have gone well beyond their regular duties and who have demonstrated unusual commitment to the university community.

With more than 21 years of service to the University of Minnesota, including four years on the Morris campus and 16 years on the Twin Cities campus, Franek has done just that. As lecture demonstration director, Franek is key to the department's teaching and outreach missions.

“Joe plays a central role in bringing chemistry to life, both for our students and for the greater community,” says William Tolman, chair of the Department of Chemistry. “His conscientious and determined efforts ensure that the innumerable demonstrations he sets up go off without a hitch, and are truly entertaining and illuminating.”

Franek works with professors to design and create safe and exciting live demonstrations that illustrate fundamental and advanced chemical principles and that make chemistry accessible to students. He does this for the department's large undergraduate chemistry course that is taught to more than 5,000 students each year as well as some of the more specialized classes for juniors and seniors. For example, for an advanced course on materials chemistry, he recently created a demonstration of molecular scattering that uses a paint gun to shoot velcro-covered balls at a hidden target, perfectly illustrating what happens when a molecular beam scatters off a crystalline target in the laboratory.

He is known for his chemical trivia knowledge, and often shares the historic origins of reactions with students and faculty. His strong interest in educating and working with students also carries forward as a respected instructor in the classroom.

One of Franek's passions is outreach. He is a key Energy and U team member. Energy and U is the Department of Chemistry and Department of Chemical Engineering & Materials Science's high-impact outreach program that brings more than 10,000 elementary-aged school students to campus every year to learn about energy. Franek creates and manages demonstrations for three back-to-back shows per day during the two weeks of Energy and U shows. He ensures that the shows, which are filled with explosions, light shows, music, and amazing transformations of energy from one form to another go off without a hitch. This includes the Rube Goldberg-inspired grand finale, which was designed and constructed by Franek. In this high impact demonstration, the energy from food is converted sequentially to electricity using a generator, to light in a laser, to chemistry via a photochemical explosion, to heat of combustion, to kinetic energy as an explosion fires a racquetball into the air, to chemical energy as the ball throws the switch on a battery, to electrical energy, to heat in a coiled wire, to chemical energy as a sparkler ignites, to chemical energy as the thermite reaction explodes in light and heat melting iron, to the explosion of a hydrogen balloon.

"Energy and U would not be possible without Joe, and his extensive commitment of time and resources," said Professor David Blank, Energy and U director. "He shows young people that science is fun, that college is possible, and that they, too, could do what he does every day.”

He has also helped Professor Lee Penn with her Microscopy Camp outreach program, which engages middle school students and middle school and high school teachers in advanced characterization techniques. In addition to creating demonstrations for the program, Franek works with teachers on how to realistically incorporate demonstrations into their own classrooms. Many of his demonstrations are posted on the department’s resources for classroom teachers web page.

“Joe is a high quality, highly-valued colleague, admired by many for his work and advice," said Blank. He is a can-do person, working with faculty members to figure out engaging demonstrations for students, offering suggestions and advice, he said.

The Board of Regents will honor Franek at 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8, at the McNamara Alumni Center. There also will be a reception at Eastcliff on Tuesday, June 3.

In the home page photo, Franek delights Energy and U attendees by roasting and eating marshmallows after the methane mambo demonstration. Below, Franek creatively creates demonstrations and equipment demonstrating what energy is all about.