Astronomy Teacher Biography ... A Brief History of Tom


My name is Tom Franke. People around the high school call me by my last name, and I have become comfortable with the title, "Franke." Those who I teach at the college call me "Dr. Franke" because I have earned my doctorate. My children call me "daddy," and this is my favorite name. My wife calls me other nicknames which I would rather not divulge to you and thus spare myself needless embarassment. When you address me over the internet or in the chat sessions, "Franke" will suffice. If you want to brown-nose a bit, you can simply call me "Dr. Franke."


I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and hate the color purple. I am a diehard Packers/Bucks/Brewers/Badgers fan. Any negative comments about my teams, or foolish bragging about the ViQueens will result in a severe reduction of your grade. This year, Brett Favre and the rest of my team will be in your ViQueen face and push you up and down the field to your demise. So ... just deal with it! I graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1977 and entered the graduate school here at the University of Minnesota during the fall of 1978. My year between college and grad school was spent at Columbia Hospital in Milwaukee doing autopsies as a pathologist's assistant for $3.53/hour. I have enough stories to tell from that year to fill this entire course, but this is a course about stars and not a course about pathology. I did learn one thing from that year that has stuck with me, "Pathology is a dead-end job," and I wanted to do something more with my life. Also, I saw hospital administrators walk everywhere with a cup of coffee in their hand. I resolved never to be like those administrators, but now that I am in my mid-forties and consistently tired, I do not go anywhere in the building without my coffee. While in that hospital I met a PhD who was working on the disease, Lupus, and he encouraged me to apply for grad school in Minnesota.

 

 

You see, my father was a doctor. He was a family physician and was loved dearly by his patients. He would come home in the evening from the hospital or his medical building office, eat dinner with us, and then go out on his housecalls. I learned how to drive while taking my dad to housecalls to visit patients in their homes. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. However, I was not a serious student in high school, and not much more in college. I got a "D" in freshman Calculus and had to retake the course the following summer. I received a "C" in freshman Biology because my friend copied my paper without my knowledge and we both were accused to cheating. I took my MCAT exams, but never prepared for them as I could have because there were too many other things to do that seemed more important than studying for the MCAT. When I received my MCAT scores a month after graduating from college and also ten out of ten letters of rejection from med school admission departments, I was convinced that I was not ever going to be a doctor, but I also had no idea what I wanted to be. I just did not take anything in life too seriously, so here I was in a hospital, cleaning dirty glassware for the Chem labs and cutting up dead bodies to determine the cause of death. When Dr. Heim encouraged me try graduate school, I knew that I wanted to do something more than autopsies as a hospital deiner (the word is German for "slave.")

I took my GRE in June, applied to the University of Minnesota in July, was accepted in August, and drove up to Minneapolis in September absolutely clueless of anything regarding where to live, much less how to find the school. Somehow I survived all of that. Upon entering the grad program at the U, I fell in love with a course about winter ecology and eventually earned my doctorate studying the winter survival strategies of a small terrestrial land snail. My thesis title is too long for this page, but I was very happy to complete my degree in 1987 and know a whole lot about a small snail which lives on the ground and avoids freezing all winter by producing glucose as an antifreeze. My grad school advisor, Dr. William Schmid, was instrumental in helping me achieve my degree and in multitasking very many simultaneous activities.

During my grad school years, I began a career as a professional swim club coach, and perhaps would have happily coached for the rest of my life were it not for the fears of parent board members firing me for an unknown reason. It was during a trip to visit my uncle Bill in Hawaii that my life was changed. Bill Albrecht is an 85 year-old amateur astronomer who lived over 20 years in Pahala, Hawaii (this is the big island ... some 52 miles south of Hilo on the east side and not far from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). His backyard has been benchmarked by satellite triangulation and his hobby is the study of variable stars. These stars pulsate in varying degrees of brightness over periods of hours to days, and he is presently ranked #3 in the world among variable star observers. He won an amateur astronomer of the year award in 1999 and was featured in the January, 1999 Sky & Telescope Magazine, and then won the "Director's Award" from Janet Mattei who is current head of the American Association of Variable Star Observers.
He showed me the stars from his backyard telescopes, and gave me a tour of the Mauna Kea Observatory and my love of the stars was rekindled. I had gone star-gazing with him as a child, but had little time to actually observe seriously.

By the time my trip was completed in 1991, I hurried home and re-entered grad school to get a master's degree in education so I could teach science like my uncle. My formal training is zoology, but there were no student teaching positions available in biology, so I jumped at the chance to teach Astronomy at Hopkins in the fall of 1992. I substitute taught there in 1993, and in the fall of 1994, the high school offered me a job teaching one 47 minute class. I advertised the course in the newspaper and 60 students took the course that following spring. By the fall of 1995, I was teaching 240 kids and the following year, 410. I had a fulltime teaching job, teaching my hobby. I count myself to be extremely fortunate. Now my time is divided between teaching Astronomy and AP Biology and I am blessed to be teaching at Hopkins. I have been a swimming coach since 1978, but as my daughters got a little older, I realized that I was investing more time in the lives of other kids than my own. It was time to retire, after 26 years, but no time seemed best. A unique opportunity was provided when two disabled athletes whom I had been coaching were selected to the USA Paralympic Team, and my wife and I were invited to Athens, Greece to help coach them. It was there that I retired as swim coach and left my coaching job absolutely fulfilled. To see a bit of this experience, go to Greece Paralympics - 2004.

In 1992, while I was learning how to become a teacher, I met a woman on a blind date in Cincinati. Five days after I came home from that weekend date in November, 1992, we agreed to get married. The big day was August 20, 1994, and as I write this paragraph, we will celebrate our 8th anniversary tomorrow. I am so very thankful to the staff at Hopkins for the way they have treated my wife, but even more so to the students over the years of my teaching career for how they have treated my family. We have two little girls, Mary and Maggie. Mary was born prematurely, while Maggie waitied inside until the proper time. I have much to be thankful for, and my family is the focal point of my life. They have given up time with their dad so I could put this course together. I owe them a debt of gratitude and recommitment to love and cherish them. Below left is my family, wife Cathy and daughters Mary and Maggie with our close personal friend Mickey. To the right is Mary with Maggie at the county fair in Michigan. Mary is in fourth grade and Maggie in second.. At some time, I may put the story of Mary's unusual, and VERY premature birth into this course, but not until the other work is done.

One thing my uncle impressed upon me more than any other lesson ... help students develop a love for the sky. Astronomy is an exciting science and also the oldest, but it is fraught with many complicated mathematical formulae. One could get lost in the theoretical aspects of Astronomy and never develop a love for the sky. Indeed Nobel Prize winner Subramanyan Chandrasekhar never looked through a telescope. I want you to learn to love the sky first, then develop a sense of place in the Universe, and finally ask youself meaningful questions about the beginning, the present, and your purpose among such a vast Universe. You will be exposed to astrophysics, nuclear physics, and cosmology, but only in a manageable manner, and if you want to know more, then take Astronomy in college. I owe my uncle a debt of gratitude for instilling in me a genuine and profound love for the sky, and I hope to pass that love on to you.

Pictured above are a few memories of my trip to Hawaii with my Uncle Bill in July, 2002. Upper right shows me standing on the top of Mauna Kea with the Keck Telescopes directly behind me. To the left on top is me standing at the entrance to the Keck facility. Yes ... I am wearing a hat and winter fleece jacket ... in Hawaii. The weather atop Mauna Kea at 13,500 feet is often very cold, and so far above much of the Earth's atmosphere that the UV rays would damage by bald head and alter the genes in my skin. Below left finds me standing with Bill at the Onizuka Visitor Center at the 9000 foot level of Mauna Kea. Bill constructed a pair of telescope mounts which he is resting his hand upon. These are up there so amateurs can bring their portable telescopes and use the equatorial mounts for star-gazing. Below right shows Bill and I at the Black Sand Beach at Punalu'u. What a hollie I am, for I did not know enough to untuck my Hawaiian shirt like all of the locals. Bill, of course, knew this but did not tell me so I would stand out more as a visitor to the island.

I am so thankful for my job at Hopkins and I just love teaching. I am very aware that almost none of you will become professional astronomers. I had such a difficult time paying attention to my teachers and here I am now ... being one. I realize that you will not need to use the magnitude-distance formula to determine the distance to your neighbors porch light, Newton's formula for gravity to convince you that you cannot jump hard enough to escape the Earth, or Wein's Law to tell you that you don't want to hold molten steel in your hands. Most of what I have learned about Astronomy I learned because it is interesting to me. I like the pictures in the books and magazines. My curiosity was piqued by the images enough that I desired to learn why things look that way. I want to teach you as if you are me ... someone with a lousy attention span who hates anyone telling him what to do, and functions best under a deadline. I am trying to be more self-disciplined and more organized, so I hope you will learn from my mistakes and apply yourself sooner in life than your thirties, but for now, I just want you to love what you are about to see and learn.

You are now instructed to move to the Course Units page to see how this is all laid out, and get an idea of what you might accomplish in the next few months. As usual, you can return to the Course Information page or the Syllabus.


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