Michael Wing, Sir Francis Drake High School, San Anselmo
Science teacher shares how to land grants, writes book
From the Galapagos Islands to Alaska and from Finland to the Arctic, Michael Wing has traveled all over the world bringing science lessons back to his students thanks to grants that allow him to do fieldwork during his travels. He’s even written a book in the pursuit of his passion for science and teaching that helps guide others to do the same.
Wing, a 21-year teacher and CalSTRS member, has spent his entire teaching career at Sir Francis Drake High School in San Anselmo. He learned how to get fieldwork grants more than 10 years ago when he was accepted into a program in the Galapagos Islands. “The opportunities had been there all along, but I didn’t see it.”
He discovered there’s only a small group of teachers applying for all the grants they can find and they run into each other regularly in these teacher travel programs. “I became one of them. I began applying for stuff. The chore of applying for a grant doesn’t seem onerous at all. That first taste of success meant I could apply for anything and not worry about whether I would get it. More teachers should apply for more stuff, and find more things to do with their kids.”
Getting students involved
Thanks to grants, Wing has done fieldwork in such places as the Arctic, Costa Rica, Finland, Namibia, India, the Pacific Ocean and the United Arab Emirates. His projects have captured national attention, including from NPR’s Science Friday. He wrote a book to help other teachers develop creative projects of their own: Passion Projects for Smart People. He also has been published in several academic journals, with five of his students getting credit as co-authors.
“Teachers have access to a lot of resources that took me a while to figure out, and not all teachers take full advantage. We tend to be educated and intellectually curious,” Wing said.
One of his projects, funded by the National Geographic Society, had students prepare glass and marble tiles and Wing got them placed around the world in extreme locations such as high mountains and hot and polar deserts. The long-term project allows students to study the cyanobacteria growing under the tiles. By preparing the tiles and inscribing their names, the students get to virtually travel to places they aren’t able to visit.
Wing and his students also built a greenhouse at the University of California’s White Mountain Research Station in the mountains near Bishop, where conditions are Arctic-like at 12,500 feet. The cold frame greenhouse, which was at the research station from 2009 to 2015, became the highest test plot in North America. They demonstrated it was possible to grow winter wheat and radishes in the extreme environment, and could replicate what conditions may exist for a colony trying to grow food on Mars.
While conducting the greenhouse study, Wing and his students saw bristlecone pines, among the longest-living trees in the world. “When we were up there, we would always go for walks—it’s interesting, educational and beautiful.” They noticed some trees twisted left while others twisted right or grew straight. Asking around, he heard several theories, but as a scientist and teacher, he put the students to work. Teams measured 600 trees over several years and the data showed the twist wasn’t correlated with environmental factors but instead was found to probably be genetic. From their findings, Wing published a paper.
Another project involved archaeology in Finland, with students following along at home. “I learned how much of what archaeologists do isn’t with shovels. It’s surveying and comparing.”
That experience took him to a project closer to home—studying a line of stones in Marin County at the Point Reyes National Seashore. “Someone placed those in lines. Some local historians thought they were prehistoric, and some didn’t. We didn’t even have to touch the stones. We were just measuring them and looking for patterns.”
The conclusion: The line of stones had been placed by 19th century ranchers to mark property lines. “We did some sleuthing and I published a paper with two students,” Wing said.
An end-of-school-year project found Wing challenging his students to find what it takes to open a particular type of pine cone to get the seeds out, demonstrating how fire is essential to the growth of trees.
“I got 100 of these cones—I literally had to go out in the woods and look for them,” Wing said. He let the students try various methods to open the cones including using a hammer and even boiling the cones. Nothing worked. He eventually allowed them to use a microwave. “The cones opened up and popped like popcorn. It’s evidence these local trees are fire-adapted.”
When asked which project was his favorite, he said it’s hard to choose. “It’s kind of like asking which of your children you like the best.”
How did you end up writing a book?
“I didn’t think of it for a long time. I was too busy traveling on teacher study tours and applying for grants. I have two children. I’d never written anything except academic articles.”
Wing said his sister-in-law wrote a funny, engaging book on her experience in keeping goats in a city, and he thought maybe he could write a book on special projects.
During a long drive from Seattle to San Francisco, inspiration struck. “Every hour, I had to pull over and write a down an idea. When I got back to San Francisco, I had an outline for the book.”
Why did you become a teacher?
“I needed a job is the short answer. I worked in environmental consulting in research. I’m a generalist and I like to think about things and not to specialize too much. I like all science and I like ideas. I wasn’t necessarily a natural teacher. I think I was a little shy of high school students when I first started. I got over it, but they were scary at first.”
He teaches ninth and 10th grade in a blended program in the same room, and these students also have classes together in other subjects. He says the students feel like they belong to a community, as they’re with him and each other for two years.
You have a Ph.D. Tell us about that.
“The kids call me Doc. They don’t call me Mr. Wing. Having a Ph.D. has helped in a limited sense in that I know how to write a paper and see a project to completion. I would stop with a master’s degree if I did it over again. I teach integrated science. There’s nothing I learned in grad school that I can’t bring to my teaching somehow.”
Did you have a teacher who influenced you?
“My favorite teacher was my ninth grade social studies teacher. He was really intellectual and passionate at the same time. When learning about labor movements, he would get his guitar and sing labor songs. He had a gift for making history interesting and making activities engaging.”
What’s one thing you’re proud of as a teacher?
“I’ve discovered that teachers can live like university professors. It does benefit their students. Students appreciate having a teacher who is a real expert on something. It engages them and makes them proud and happy. You can always get them involved, even if you do it outside class.”
Tell us about your family
Wing has been married for 32 years. He has a son, 20, and a daughter who is a freshman in college. “She was in my classroom for two years.”
How long until retirement?
Wing says he has probably another 10 years of teaching left. After retirement, he’d like to continue his projects and would consider volunteering or doing research in national parks.
“I’m not from California. I grew up on the East Coast. I can never get over how lucky I am to live so close to nature. Where I live, in an urban area, I can still go for a hike. I love being in the outdoors and in the field.”
Teacher Talk is a series of profiles on California teachers and other educators. To be considered for a future profile, please email Communications@CalSTRS.com, with Teacher Talk in the subject line.