CLEARING interview by Jackie Wilson

MikeTown3Mike Town earned two bachelor’s degrees and a master’s degree from Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University and the University of Washington.

From 1985 to 2010, Mike taught numerous science courses at Redmond High School including a very successful Advanced Placement Environmental Science program, which over the course of more than 10 years has been taken by nearly half of the student body.  He has also developed numerous elective courses including a Career and Technical Educational course in Environmental Engineering and Sustainable Design.  In 2006, Mike developed the Cool School Challenge (CSC), a program in which has students audit and then reduce the carbon footprints of their schools. CSC now reaches internationally.

Mike has received numerous awards including the NEA Foundation Green Prize for the best environmental program in the United States, and national Environmental Educator of the Year award from the Conservation Fund and North American Association of Environmental Education.  In 2008, Mike’s students received the EPA Presidential Environmental Youth Award from President George Bush in a Rose Garden ceremony at the White House.  This past year, Mike worked on STEM education policy issues as an Einstein Fellow for the National Science Board at the National Science Foundation.

Mike is passionate about environmental issues and was instrumental in the passage of the Wild Sky Wilderness Act which created a 106,000 acre Wilderness area in Washington State.  Mike and his wife Meg, a fellow science teacher, have also built a solar powered home which is beyond carbon neutral.  This September, Mike will return to Redmond High School to continue teaching, working on environmental issues and growing organic food.

Jackie Wilson talked to Mike on August 2, 2011.

Tell me about your work this year in Washington , D.C.  What have you been focusing on?

This year I served as a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Education Policy Analyst for the National Science Board, the governing board for the National Science Foundation (NSF).  The National Science Board is made up of 25 members who are nominated by the President and approved by congress.  The NSF is the biggest funder of science research in the US, and a little bit under $1 billion funds STEM education in the US.  My job is to become an expert on STEM education legislation and policy.  What that means is that I go to congressional briefings and hearings and review reports on STEM education and summarize information for the Board.

I also do some work for the National Research Council (an arm of the National Academy of Sciences).  I am on the steering committee that will be putting together a conference in Washington D.C. on climate change education, and I will be working on a 3 year project for NRC on integrated STEM.  I also work on environmental literacy and environmental policy issues.

What progress have you seen so far this year?

There has been a lot of really good research that has been released on STEM education with some really, really good recommendations for how to reform STEM education, including work from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Academy of Sciences, and others.  The National Academy released their frameworks for Science Education standards.

One of the great things about being in Washington, D.C. and working on national issues is how far ahead Washington state is on environmental literacy.  That has a lot to do with Gilda Wheeler with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and Abby Ruskey with the Environmental Education Association of Washington.

What are the key stumbling blocks you are facing in promoting environmental education?

The frustrating part is the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has stalled in Congress during the last year.  It’s frustrating to see these great recommendations, but politically they are getting no action because of the budget debate.

MikeTown2(small)There are two ways that environmental education can get a jumpstart: 1) passing No Child Left Inside (NCLI) and 2) a dedicated fund for environmental literacy, which would be a component of NCLI.  The good news is that NCLI was just introduced in both houses, and Senator Murray is a co-sponor.  What NCLI does is require states to write environmental literacy plans.  Washington State just finished and released their plan last week.  Environmental literacy also fits in with the goal of providing a well-rounded education, which is a part of the President’s blueprint for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA).  In the last three weeks things have started to move.  Environmental literacy may still get passed this year.

What steps would you encourage individual teachers and informal educators to take to promote environmental education?

On the formal side, offer AP Environmental Science in their high school.  AP Environment Science is the fastest growing AP science class, and in 5 years it is projected to be the largest enrollment of all AP science classes.

On the informal side, I think educators can let their politicians know that they are supporters of NCLI and environmental literacy education because  the passage of these policy initiatives will be critical if we are going to deal with environmental education on the informal side.

Have you come across any great models you think environmental educators should be aware of?

Yes, there are a lot of them out there.  One of the best is the environmental sustainability classes that are CTE (Career and Technical Education) certified for 11th and 12th grade in Washington State, standards put together by Gilda Wheeler.  The Environmental Engineering class I teach at Redmond is an example.

At the University of Washington they have a dual credited UW course in climate change which is now being developed to offer in high schools in Washington State.  In this course students get UW and high school credit.  LuAnne Thompson, Tim Stetter, and Miriam Bertram at UW are working to design the course. [See previous Clearing article here—Ed.]

What have you been doing with your free time while in Washington, D.C.?

My wife Meg and I have biked 3,700 miles, toured most of the Civil War battlefields, and enriched ourselves with the intellectual culture of our nation’s capitol.

Are you looking forward to returning to the “other Washington” (state) and Redmond High School?

Yes, I am.  And Meg is, too.  It’s not out of the question that we would return back to D.C., but we have a lot of things that we want to do in Washington besides just teaching, including working on public lands initiatives.  We want to spend time living back in our solar powered house, growing organic vegetables, and seeing our friends.

Where do you go when you need to reconnect with nature?

When I’m in Washington, The Wild Sky Wilderness of course!  Just a hike in the Wild Sky is what I need.

What was the first nature experience that influenced your life?

Probably when I was living in rural Missouri at about age 5.  I saw a crawdad in a creek.

Another important experience was Earth Day 1970.

Who are your environmental heroes?

David Brower, Thomas Huxley, Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Jacques Cousteau, and the list goes on.

What are you currently reading?

I’m actually going to being picking up Omnivore’s Dilemma [by Michael Pollan] even though I’ve read it before because I’m going to be writing some curriculum on factory farms.  As I’m driving I’m also listening to A Sand County Almanac [by Aldo Leopold].

Are you optimistic about the future?

I have to be, I’m an environmental educator!

Jackie Wilson is one of Mike’s former RHS students who was inspired to pursue environmental education as a career.  She earned her Bachelor’s degrees in Biology and Environmental Studies, and as an undergraduate completed independent experimental field research on Olympia oyster restoration ecology.  After graduation she worked at the Pacific Science Center and the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, and then served as the Environmental Steward for the Seattle Art Museum, based at the Olympic Sculpture Park.  Earlier this year Jackie completed her Master’s in Education.