A curtain call for impresario, tireless advocate for science literacy:
New interactive mural invites exploration and engagement with science
"I expect to pass through the world but once. Any good therefore that I can do, or any kindness that
Attributed to Etienne de Grellet du Mabiller
"Scientist by training, teacher and public servant by trade, advocate by conviction, optimist by nature." That is the way Bassam Z. Shakhashiri describes himself. As Professor of Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Dr. Shakhashiri finds outlets for all four attributes, to which he might add a fifth: entertainer by avocation. Shakhashiri, as a matter of fact, is probably best known to the public at large for his annual program, "Once Upon a Christmas Cheery, In the Lab of Shakhashiri," seen on television throughout the country. The science-oriented entertainment show has played to packed houses at such varied places as UW-Madison, the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the halls of the U.S. Congress, and Boston's Museum of Science. A one-hour show as well as two half-hour shows are featured year-round on PBS and on other cable stations. The Christmas Lecture, which is in the tradition of the great British scientist Michael Faraday who presented a total of 19 series, is only one example of Dr. Shakhashiri's attachment to hands-on science. In 2019, he presented his 50th Christmas Lecture.
The shows are Dr. Shakhashiri's way of proving that "Science is Fun!" (the legend on a t-shirt he dons for the show, as well as the name of his website). By demonstrating how much fun it can be, Shakhashiri, in his role as advocate for science, seeks to impart the joy of discovery that has engaged young minds throughout history. This excitement, he believes in his role as optimist, will lure future generations to careers as researchers, entrepreneurs, and teachers on whom the nation's continuing economic health and national security will depend. Just as importantly, he advocates the achievement of literacy in science, mathematics, and technology among those who choose other pursuits. He believes it is essential for the well-being of our society that all citizens develop an understanding and an appreciation of science, the benefits of technology, and the potential risks associated with advances in both.
Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is the first holder of the William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea at UW-Madison. He is well known internationally for his effective leadership in promoting excellence in science education at all levels, and for his development and use of demonstrations in the teaching of chemistry in classrooms as well as in less formal settings, such as museums, convention centers, shopping malls, and retirement homes. The Encyclopedia Britannica sites him as the "dean of lecture demonstrators in America." His scholarly publications, including the multi-volume series, Chemical Demonstrations: A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry, are models of learning and instruction that have been translated into several languages. He is an advocate for policies to advance knowledge and to use science and technology to serve society. He promotes the exploration and establishment of links between science, the arts, and the humanities, and the elevation of discourse on significant societal issues related to science, religion, politics, the economy, and ethics. Dr. Shakhashiri was the 2012 president of the American Chemical Society (ACS).
A native of (Anfe, El-Koura) Lebanon, Shakhashiri is the son of the late Dr. Zekin A. Shakhashiri, a pioneer in public health at the American University of Beirut, and the late Adma N. Shakhashiri, an alumna of what is now Lebanese American University. The Shakhashiris—father, mother, son and two daughters, Amal and Maha—came to the United States in 1957 when Bassam was 17 years old, with one year of college (at the American University of Beirut) behind him. He completed undergraduate work at Boston University (Class of '60) with an A. B. degree in chemistry, served as a teaching fellow at Bowdoin College for one academic year, and then earned M.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry at the University of Maryland ('64 and '68, respectively).
After a year of post-doctoral research and two years as a junior member of the chemistry faculty at the University of Illinois-Urbana, Dr. Shakhashiri joined the faculty of the UW-Madison in 1970, a position he still holds. In 1977 he became the founding chair of the UW System Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Council, now called the Office of Professional and Instructional Development. In 1983 he founded the Institute for Chemical Education (ICE) and served as its first director. His work with ICE inspired the establishment of the Center for Biology Education, the Merck Institute for Science Education, the Miami University (of Ohio) Center for Chemical Education, the Sacred Heart University SMART Center, and others. In 2002 he founded the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL) and continues to serve as its director.
From 1984 to 1990 Dr. Shakhashiri served as Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) for Science and Engineering Education. As the NSF chief education officer he presided over the rebuilding of all the NSF efforts in science and engineering education after they had been essentially eliminated in the early 1980's. His leadership and effectiveness in developing and implementing national programs in science and engineering education have helped set the annual NSF education budget at its current level of over $900 million. His NSF strategic plan launched the systemic initiatives and most of the other NSF education programs.
Dr. Shakhashiri has given over 1500 invited lectures and presentations in North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, and South America. He has been featured in newspapers, magazines, national and local radio and television; these include the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, the German-language Business Week, NBC Nightly News, National Public Radio, CNN, and the Larry King show. He appears as a regular guest on the Ideas Network of Wisconsin Public Radio.
He is a national and international consultant to government agencies, academic institutions, industry, and private foundations on policy and practice matters related to science and to education at all levels. He is the recipient of over 40 awards, including Outstanding Lecturer of the Year in General Chemistry, University of Illinois (1969 and 1970), the 1977 Kiekhofer Distinguished Teaching Award from UW-Madison, and the 1979 Manufacturing Chemists Association Catalyst Award. He is the youngest recipient of two of the ACS's most coveted recognitions—the James Flack Norris Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Teaching of Chemistry (1983) and the ACS George Pimentel Award in Chemical Education (1986); he has been a member of the ACS since 1962. In 1982 he was given the Ron Gibbs Award by the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers for "outstanding contributions to science education at the local, regional, national, and international levels." In 1987, he was cited for distinguished public service by the District of Columbia Science Education Association, the National Science Teachers Association, the South Carolina Academy of Science, and the Boston University General Alumni Association.
He received the 2002 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Award for Public Understanding of Science and Technology, "for his tireless efforts to communicate science to the general public, and especially children." In 2004 he was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the national chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma. In 2005 he received the Madison Metropolitan School District Distinguished Service Award for a Citizen, the Chemical Pioneer Award from the American Institute of Chemists, the ACS Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach for "lifelong accomplishments and for explaining and demonstrating science with charisma and passion," and was cited in the Answer Book of Capital Newspapers as the "coolest UW professor." In 2006 he received the Rotary Senior Service Award from the Rotary Club of Madison. In 2007 he received the National Science Board Public Service Award and was cited for "extraordinary contributions to promote science literacy and cultivate the intellectual and emotional links between science and the arts for the public." In 2008 he received the inaugural Emerson Science Advocacy Medal from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and was cited for "distinguished, sustained, and lasting contributions in the development of the sciences." The Wisconsin State Superintendent, Tony Evers, named Shakhashiri a "Friend of Education" in 2013, and in that same year, he was awarded the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science by the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. The ACS awarded him the James T. Grady-James H. Stack Award for Interpreting Chemistry for the Public in 2018, with the citation: "For celebrating the joy of chemistry with kids of all ages and sparking appreciation of science in an extraordinary number of public engagements and media." In 2019, the Wisconsin Science Festival gave him the inaugural Bassam Shakhashiri Faculty Engagement Award. The New England Association of Chemistry Teachers conferred The John A. Timm Award "for the furtherance of the study of chemistry on Bassam Z. Shakhashiri in recognition of distinguished contributions to Chemical Education" in 2021. In 2022, he received the John R. Kuebler Award from Alpha Chi Sigma for distinguished service to the Fraternity and to the chemical profession, and the ACS Outstanding Service to the Division of Chemical Education Award.
Shakhashiri is an elected fellow of the New York Academy of Science, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, the South Carolina Academy of Science, and the Alabama Academy of Science. He is the recipient of honorary doctoral degrees from George Washington University, Illinois State University, Ripon College, University of Colorado, Grand Valley State University, University of South Carolina, and Lebanese American University.
Dr. Shakhashiri retired in August 2021 and continues his public engagement work. In October 2022, an interactive mural was unveiled in the Discovery Building on the UW-Madison campus, featuring Bassam and other scientists. Also in fall 2022, WARF named the Bassam Z. Shakhashiri Public Science Engagement Award in his honor. It will be awarded to those who show excellence in engaging the public in their work in science, technology, engineering, arts, and math research.
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