To Raise a Sea of Hands

Joe Franek awakens students of all ages to the wonder of science

Molten iron, flashes of light, amazing transformations of energy—whatever you want, Joe Franek can create it.

Franek is the lecture demonstration director for the Department of Chemistry in the U’s College of Science and Engineering. An article in the Minnesota Daily a few years back dubbed him the “Chemistry King.” He has served the University of Minnesota for over 20 years, creating vivid effects that entertain students as well as educate them.

Joe Franek Joe Franek, Lecture Demonstration Director


One of his favorite demonstrations involves a dramatic chemical reaction in a balloon filled with hydrogen and chlorine gases. The reaction is set off by simply shining a blue laser pointer at the balloon. The laser pointer bit “is very cool,” he says.

Franek also joins professors on stage. He is a bit of a ham and really enjoys the humorous banter. During one demonstration, he draws a laugh when he informs the students that the professor will set a pile of magnesium shavings on fire and then “bravely” run away, leaving him behind to place dry ice on the burning metal.

He’s titled another demonstration “The Flaming Tube of Death.” Franek tells the audience that few faculty members want to tackle something with that name. “If I had been thinking ahead I would have named it ‘The Blue Tube of Happiness,’” he says.

“If I had been thinking ahead I would have named it ‘The Blue Tube of Happiness.’”

Besides all of his classroom work, Franek helps create the hit outreach program “Energy and U.” It brings 10,000 schoolchildren to the U each year, entertaining them with the first law of thermodynamics and introducing higher education to many of them for the first time.

The most important thing is “inspiring the students,” Franek says. “I love seeing a sea of hands when I ask a question or am looking for a volunteer.”