Mike Town wins national acclaim – and inspires students to reach further – with a focus on environmental education
Story by William Dietrich ('73)
While a missile can be aimed across continents, teaching and learning are more akin to throwing gravel in a pond. Sure, ripples go out, but exactly what a university like Western accomplishes might not be entirely clear until years or decades after graduation. Did inspiration really take root? Was a key lesson really learned?
How far will those ripples go?
Then someone like Mike Town, ‘84 and ‘85, helps change the world. And you know the collaboration works.
Town got direction in life from Western and Huxley College of the Environment. And he, in turn, has given direction to about 1,500 of his environmental education students at Redmond High School, while successfully lobbying for new wilderness and pioneering alternative energy in his “spare” time.
And his “pay it forward” enthusiasm and strategies are beginning to influence high school teaching across the country.
After winning a $25,000 national prize in environmental education, Town, 51, is now an Einstein Fellow at the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C., hoping his success at putting high school students in the front line to fight global warming will inspire environmental education nationally.
“I want to do in public high schools what Huxley College did in American universities,” he says. “Huxley was the first, or one of the first, environmental colleges in the nation that brought an interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach to environmental education. I want environmental science as an interdisciplinary curriculum to become a common core class in high schools.”
His Cool School Challenge to enlist students, teachers and school districts to reduce pollution and energy consumption has gone viral, spreading to about 150 schools across the nation. At Redmond High School alone, the program has cut at least $40,000 from energy and waste costs and reduced the school’s emissions to almost 50 percent below the target reduction set by the Kyoto Protocols on global warming. Nationwide, the Cool School Challenge has reduced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1.8 million pounds.
Town’s teaching shows phenomenal results, too. He encourages middling high school students to try his rigorous Advanced Placement Environmental Science course. Not only do they try, they succeed. Of 143 students in the class last year, 91 percent passed the AP test for certification and college credit, compared to an average of 49 percent nationally.
To top it off, Town is disarmingly modest: “I’m flattered, but also embarrassed,” he says. He credits much of his recognition to being “one of the environmental science teachers doing it longer than anyone else.” He says his wife of 22 years, Meg, who teaches middle school science, is a better teacher than he is.
Hey, they met at Western – Meg Town earned her teaching credential in 1985. WWU can claim credit for both of them.
Town didn’t start off as a model student, more like one of the middle-of-the-pack kids he recruits into his classes. His Canadian-born parents were migratory and he spent his high school years in Orange County, much more interested in the outdoors than schoolwork. “I never really thought I was going to go to college,” he recounts.
He went to work as a machinist, but surfing introduced him to environmentalists trying to save California beaches and lobbying against the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. Some college students he met up with intrigued him with the idea of studying something he was actually interested in: the environment.
He hitchhiked across the United States and back, returning with the notion to try school again at Huxley. “I came to Bellingham on one of those spectacular, 75-degree blue sky days,” he recalls. Like legions of students before him, he was hooked by the campus beauty.
Fate was also at work. When he returned a few months later to start school, his 1952 panel truck broke its driveshaft in the Fairhaven College parking lot. Mike Town was at Western to stay.
“Huxley students gravitated together,” Town remembers. “We lived in these cooperative houses and formed a ‘food web’ to buy food together. Everybody got to know each other. We had potlucks and listened to the same music. They called us ‘The Granolas’ and we did dress a little differently. But the passion for and knowledge of science was really strong.”
Inspired by Huxley professors such as John Miles and his course in environmental ethics, and physical chemist Ruth Weiner, who stressed the importance of rigorous quantitative analysis, Town began to have academic success. What engrossed him was the interdisciplinary, problem-solving approach of Huxley, very different than traditional science departments. Town helped research whether pulp mill waste from Bellingham’s Georgia-Pacific plant could make fertilizer, and then did his “problem series” research on the relationship between the pine beetle and the lodgepole pine it was devastating.
Other professors who influenced him included Lynn Robbins, who taught courses in environmental policy and impact assessment, marine biologist Bert Webber, ecologist Tom Lacher and aquatic biologist Dave Brakke, then director of the Institute for Watershed Studies.
Science, he learned, was hands-on, practical and world-changing. He brought that lesson to Redmond High, where he developed a horticulture and later a forest ecology course at the peak of the spotted owl wars. Then he launched an Advanced Placement Environmental Science class so popular that almost half the student body takes the elective.
Today, Town’s classroom lessons emphasize the threat of climate change, greenhouse gas pollution and ways to conserve energy or create green alternatives.
“Ecology teaches the interrelationship of all the sciences,” he says. “Instead of abstract math, it’s concrete problem solving. When you understand how forest ecology works, it’s like seeing the woods with a different lens – seeing the forest for the trees.”
Town also takes his work home. His solar array feeds so much energy into the electrical grid that he believes his home is now “carbon neutral,” generating as much electricity as it consumes. He worked on state legislation that requires utilities to pay more for home-grown electricity than they charge consumers, to help subsidize solar photovoltaic investments.
He lobbied and campaigned for nine years to help create the new 106,000-acre Wild Sky Wilderness in Washington’s Cascade Mountains, a “back-door” preserve near Seattle and Everett that is the state’s first new federal wilderness area in 24 years. A low-elevation watershed, forests like this haven’t typically been protected in the past, Town says, which was why preserving this federal forestland was an ecological victory.
Town has inspired many of his high school students to take their own actions to protect the environment. They have worked with local governments, gotten a Starbucks to change its waste stream, pushed Puget Sound Energy to promote conservation and renewable energy and won more than $20,000 in student envrionmental contests.
Town has also persuaded many of his students to try Western and Huxley. As many as 40 students come to WWU each year from Redmond High, he says.
“I talk Western up all the time,” he says, “especially the uniqueness of Huxley.”
One suspects Mike Town would have done well regardless of his alma mater, but WWU was formative – the right pebble making ripples in the right pond.
“Huxley was the right place at the right time for me,” he says. At Huxley, Town says, “I found something bigger than myself – the environment – and my passion got nurtured there.”
William Dietrich is a graduate of WWU’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and an assistant professor at Huxley College of the Environment. His profile of Mike Town will appear in the Huxley College history book, “Green Fire,” scheduled for publication in early 2011. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster, Dietrich is also an accomplished non-fiction author known for his work exploring Pacific Northwest ecosystems. When he’s not mentoring Environmental Journalism students at Huxley, he’s working on the next installment of his Ethan Gage Adventure series of novels.