Joseph Franek: Chemical demonstration wizard
Three key staff members retire with a combined 77 years of service—Joseph Franek, Eileen Harvala, and Victor Munsch
Joseph "Joe" Franek, the Department of Chemistry’s chemical demonstration director, is retiring after more than 26 years of service to the University of Minnesota, which includes four years on the Morris campus and 22 years on the Twin Cities campus. He started working for the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in July 1998.
Joe has been key to the department’s teaching and outreach missions, creating and setting up demonstrations that are entertaining, illuminating, and designed to bring chemistry to life for students of all ages. Over the years, he has taught and reached people from pre-school through adulthood, contributing with passion and commitment to curriculum development, outreach, teaching, and research. For his outstanding service, Joe received the President’s Award for Outstanding Service in 2014.
Joe works with professors to imagine, design, create, and improve safe and exciting 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 courses as well as specialized classes for juniors and seniors.
For example, for an advanced course on materials chemistry, Joe created a demonstration of molecular scattering that uses a paintball 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.
In addition, Joe is known for his chemical trivia knowledge and he often shares the historic origins of reactions with students and faculty. His strong interest in educating and working with students has made him a respected instructor in the classroom.
Most recently, during this time of COVID, Joe created a library of videos that professors can use for their online instruction. The videos augment a large catalog of step-by-step chemical demonstrations that Joe has built over the years, which includes detailed instructions, clear safety risks and precautions, and photos.
For Professor Lee Penn, director of Undergraduate Studies, Joe has been essential to the department’s teaching and outreach missions. “He has helped us all be more generous with our time and energy by tirelessly, generously, and passionately working to improve and develop demonstrations of chemistry,” Penn said.
Joe has left his mark on the Department of Chemistry community, inspiring many into a career of chemistry. One of those is Eric Kehoe who has known Joe since he was an undergraduate major in the department. Kehoe is now a high school science teacher at Janesville Waldorf Pemberton High School.
“Many of the demonstrations that amazed me as a chemistry student have made their way, in some form, into my own classroom instruction,” said Kehoe. “Joe is always willing to help out, spreading his passion and wonderment for chemistry. He not only is more than willing to explain the setup of a demonstration for a high school teacher like myself, but he also has made my students’ trips to the University memorable with displays that never disappoint. I am not sure how many students make their way through the chemistry department knowing Joe, but I know that everyone who has been through a chemistry class has a lasting memory of just how exciting chemistry can be.”
“I am not sure how many students make their way through the chemistry department knowing Joe, but I know that everyone who has been through a chemistry class has a lasting memory of just how exciting chemistry can be.”—Eric Kehoe, former student and high school science teacher
One of Joe’s passions is outreach. He is the key member of the Energy and U team.
Energy and U is the College of Science & Engineering’s high-impact outreach program that brings more than 10,000 elementary-aged school students to campus every year to learn about energy and the 1st Law of Thermodynamics. Joe creates, develops, refines, and manages demonstrations for the shows. He ensures that the shows, which are filled with explosions, demonstrations, and amazing transformations of energy from one form to another, go off without a hitch. He also is the only Energy and U presenter in all of the shows, which sometimes adds up to 27 shows a year.
One of the demonstrations that Joe has perfected over the years involves using laser light to initiation a reaction between hydrogen and chlorine gases. Called the Death Star, it is a student and audience favorite. He assembles a balloon within a balloon reactor. The inner balloon contains the reactive gases (hydrogen and chlorine), and the outer balloon contains hydrogen. Activation energy is needed to ignite the reaction, and Joe uses lasers of different wavelengths or colors to achieve this. Students try the lasers of varying energy to set off the reaction from a safe distance. When the correct laser is selected, the result is a spectacular explosion.
Another Energy & U crowd favorite is the Rube Goldberg-inspired grand finale that uses all of the forms of energy talked about in the show to ignite a thermite reaction exploding in light and heat and creating molten iron.
“One of the most satisfying moments for Energy and U performers is when we meet the kids at the building doors to send them off to their buses after the show,” said Professor Aaron Massari, director of Energy and U. “Joe’s queue is always the longest: every kid wants to high-five Joe and tell him how awesome the show was. I think they all leave the show wanting to be a little like Joe, and that’s a big step toward envisioning themselves as scientists. Joe’s passion for making this show safe and exciting to watch will continue to fuel Energy and U for many years to come.”
“Joe’s queue is always the longest: every kid wants to high-five Joe and tell him how awesome the [Energy & U] show was. I think they all leave the show wanting to be a little like Joe, and that’s a big step toward envisioning themselves as scientists.”—Professor Aaron Massari, Energy & U director