UC Berkeley News



 Alex Filippenko's pedagogical techniques include propelling pastry and candy bars into the classroom . . . though that's almost surely not the primary reason he's being honored as Professor of the Year at a national ceremony this week. (Steve McConnell photo)

An astronomer with a stellar teaching style
Alex Filippenko named national Professor of the Year by CASE and The Carnegie Foundation

| 16 November 2006

What makes an outstanding professor? Try theme songs for every class, 40 different T-shirts to introduce each day's lecture topic, flying-doughnut demonstrations . . . and, not the least, "the ability to light the astral fire in undergraduates," in one student's admiring phrase.

These are just a few of the bonuses Alex Filippenko sprinkles throughout his introductory astronomy class, which draws between 750 and 800 students per semester. They also earned him this year's Professor of the Year Award, conferred jointly by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

The award, to be announced Thursday, Nov. 16, in Washington, D.C., acknowledges "outstanding professors for their dedication to teaching, commitment to students, and innovative instructional methods." Four national professors of the year are chosen, one each from two-year community colleges, four-year colleges, master's-degree- granting institutions, and doctoral and research universities - the latter category being the one in which Filippenko is being honored.

A world-renowned expert on exploding stars (supernovae), black holes, galaxies, and cosmology, Filippenko has taught Introduction to General Astronomy once a year since he joined the Department of Astronomy faculty 20 years ago; he estimates that one-sixth of all undergraduates take it at some point during their years here. For four of the past six years he has been voted "Best Professor" on campus in informal student polls, and his course is one of the most popular, often winning in the "Best Course" category. At RateMyProfessors.com Filippenko has the most reviews of any Berkeley professor, all in a similar vein to this one: "His class is a must for any Cal student. You learn so much and don't even realize it, he's so entertaining." One campus fraternity review stated "Filippenko is the greatest professor you'll meet. . TAKE THIS CLASS!!!!!"

Another anonymous reviewer urged students not to miss his Halloween lecture, in which he dresses up as a black hole and throws out astronomy-themed candy - Starbursts, Milky Ways, Mars Bars, Eclipses - to demonstrate the quantum-mechanical evaporation of black holes postulated by Stephen Hawking.

The enthusiasm he brings to the esoteric topics of astronomy draws as much as one-fifth of the class to additional three-hour bull sessions on topics not covered in the class and not on the exam.

"Students . sit on the edges of their seats for three hours that fly by as Alex works his magic, explaining extremely complicated topics of theoretical physics in clear and simple terms to a room of mostly first- and second-year non-science majors," wrote former student Heather Newman in a nomination letter. "This in itself should be a testament to Alex's prowess as a professor: He inspires students to sit through an extra nine hours of lecture solely for the sake of learning more."

Each semester, Filippenko holds a contest to select a dozen students to accompany him, in groups of three, for nights of research at Lick Observatory near San Jose. The competition draws up to 80 entries, ranging from essays and posters to paintings, songs, poems, and the occasional batch of cookies (he's not immune to food bribes, he says). The winning students earn the rare privilege of seeing how exploding supernovae are studied with modern instruments and discussing cosmology until dawn.

Over the past 20 years he also has invited more than 60 undergraduates to join his research team; collectively, using his robotic telescope, they have discovered and received credit for about 600 new supernovae. For these efforts, in 2002 he received Berkeley's Distinguished Research Mentoring of Undergraduates Award. He has also supervised a large number of graduate students on their way to earning a Ph.D. and becoming post-doctoral fellows.

In addition to the observatory visits, he organizes "star parties" to view meteor showers, eclipses, and other celestial events, and occasionally drops in at the residence halls to have dinner with students.

The proof of teaching is in the students, however, and Filippenko enthralls them.

"I consider it a great achievement that by the end of the semester, a substantial fraction - perhaps a majority of the students - are wishing the class would continue for an additional semester," he says, noting that Astronomy 10 is intended for freshmen and sophomores in the humanities, not for science majors. "Many of these are precisely those students who had a negative experience with science in junior high and high school because they weren't taught the right way. They come in very frightened and apprehensive about the course, and they leave having really enjoyed it, finally understanding the value and beauty of science."

Filippenko has a simple philosophy: "to bring the magnificence of the cosmos to the students and to show them that through careful observations, experiments, and interpretations, we humans have the potential to understand how our universe works."

His classroom demonstrations are integral to his pedagogy. For example, he ties a doughnut to a string and twirls it over his head to show how gravity keeps the moon in orbit - until the doughnut breaks and flies off in a straight line into the class, demonstrating Newton's law of inertia. These classroom skills have won him two campus awards for distinguished teaching.

Filippenko's research findings are documented in about 500 published papers, and he is one of the world's most widely cited astronomers. An introductory astronomy textbook, The Cosmos: Astronomy in the New Millennium (2001), written with Jay Pasachoff, won the Texty Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Assn. in 2001 for best new textbook in the physical sciences; it is now in its third edition.

He was a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow in 2001. Next January he will receive the Richtmyer Memorial Award of the American Association of Physics Teachers, given each year to an eminent research physicist who is asked to deliver a lecture suited to non-specialists at the annual meeting. His topic will be the discovery, to which he made major contributions, that the expansion of the universe is speeding up (accelerating) with time, driven by a mysterious form of dark energy - the top "Science Breakthrough of 1998" according to the editors of Science magazine.

Filippenko strongly believes that excellence in research and teaching go hand-in-hand. He loves to share the most recent discoveries, both his own and those of other scientists, with students. By explaining the scientific process in an engaging manner, and explaining abstract concepts in simple terms, he makes astrophysics come alive even for non-science majors.

"Places like Berkeley are often criticized for not caring that much about undergraduate teaching," he says. "Having a national award in the category of doctoral and research universities shows that Berkeley in particular, and research universities in general, really do value teaching."

He notes that Christina Maslach, vice provost for undergraduate education and a psychology professor, won the top national award from CASE in 1997, and three other faculty have won top state teaching awards from the organization.

His teaching goes way beyond the undergraduate classroom. Filippenko has racked up more than 400 public lectures in a wide range of venues, has taped two series of astronomy lectures available on video from The Teaching Company, and can be watched free worldwide thanks to webcasting of Astronomy 10. In 2002 he was a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar, lecturing at 15 different institutions. He has appeared in many television documentaries, such as Stephen Hawking's Universe, Mysteries of Deep Space, and the upcoming two-part series Exploring Time. He is also the recipient of the 2004 Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization from the Trustees of Wonderfest.

During the past decade he has been active in the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as board member, vice president, and president. The society's main goals are to disseminate astronomical results to the general public and to train K-12 science teachers.

To Filippenko, though, teaching undergraduates is the pinnacle: "Seeing the great thrill and joy students get from learning the wonders of the universe has been the ultimate reward."