Photo by Tori Gottlieb
Dr. Michael Town looks on as student Robert Johnson opens a box of newly ordered solar panels for use in his project on solar energy.

There’s a doctor in the classroom at TEC High

By Tori Gottlieb

One of only thirteen members of the Highline School District teaching staff with a doctorate, Michael Town plays down his education.

Most of his students at Technology, Engineering and Communications High School (TEC) on the Evergreen campus in White Center call him “Mr. Town” rather than “Dr. Town.”
Even some fellow staff members have no idea that he holds a Ph.D. He joked that before starting at TEC, he had to spend a year retraining as a teacher, because having a doctorate practically disqualified him from teaching at the high school level.

At the University of Michigan, Town developed an interest in climate change that would eventually lead him to a doctoral program at the University of Washington. After graduating in 2007 and working for several years overseas as a postdoctoral scholar, Town decided it was time to make a change.

“The opportunities were taking me farther and farther away from my friends and family,” he said of his career in research.

He also longed to pursue his passion of teaching, which is what brought him back to Seattle and, eventually, to TEC.

However, it’s clear that Town’s experiences as a trained scientist and the contacts he made during his time as a researcher are beneficial to his work at TEC.

Last October, a colleague of his -- now working at the U.S. State Department -- contacted him to be part of the United States’ review of an international document on climate change.

Produced every five years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and strictly vetted prior to publication, the document is a scientific exploration of climate change that is disseminated to political leaders all over the world. The goal is for policy-makers to be well informed when making decisions regarding the environment and global climate change.

Town opted out of reviewing the section he was an expert in, instead offering to have his sustainable design class at TEC review a more general part of the document.

His goal was not only to complete the review of the document, but also to give his students a hands-on lesson in scientific literacy. “Most kids had not seen a document of this level,” he said. “The words themselves are hard to decipher, and graph reading was another skill we had to work on.”

The review evolved day by day as students commented on what they didn’t understand, and Town went over those parts of the document with them.

The students eventually determined that the document was simply too technical to be disseminated to politicians or the public, offering the criticism that the language and graphs used were so complex that the reader had to be a climate change expert to understand them.

Town sent the students’ commentary back to his colleague at the State Department, where the committee reviewing the document said the students’ comments really struck a chord. So much so, in fact, that the students’ criticism of the language and complex graphs were included in the committee’s cover letter to the IPCC.

Robert Johnson, a student who worked on the IPCC report, admitted that he didn’t realize the contribution he and his classmates had made to international climate change policy until much later in the semester.

“It’s actually pretty nice to think of it like that,” he said. Now in his second semester of sustainable design coursework with Dr. Town, Johnson is experimenting with using solar energy to replace more traditional fuel sources, such as coal and oil.

Other students in Town’s class have moved on to similar projects focused on sustainable materials. Michelle Hyunh is testing the reaction of brine shrimp to their underwater environment as she infuses it with carbon dioxide, hoping to simulate the increasing pollution levels in the earth’s oceans.

Fellow students Jacob Scovel and Dalton Baur are working on creating sustainable skateboards, both by finding production methods that use fewer fossil fuel energy sources, and by using green materials to actually build the boards, such as bamboo wood and toxin-free adhesives.

Town is grateful for the financial and curriculum support he receives from KSTF.

Town understands that most of his students may not go on to become engineers or scientists, and admits that encouraging that isn’t really his goal.

“I don’t want all these kids to become engineers,” he said. “I want them to have some idea of how to make decisions based on evidence, and I want them to get some hands-on skills. I’m trying to prepare for the next step.”

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