Passion Projects

Passion Projects for Smart People: Turn your intellectual pursuits into fun, profit and recognition by Michael R. Wing, Ph.D.

Passion Projects has received media mentions in:
National Public Radio’s Science Friday program (aired May 5, 2017), Real Simple Magazine (September 2017, page 72), California Teacher Magazine (September-October 2017, back cover), The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 11, 2018: Advice) and the indie book publishing industry’s Forward Reviews (September/October 2017).

Live like a Professor on a Kindergarten Teacher’s Resources

Passion Projects Book CoverDoes your day job  (if you have one) fully use your education, engage your mind, or feed your soul?  There are many opportunities to do intellectually serious work―work that will win you professional recognition, travel opportunities, and publications. You just have to make them happen, and Passion Projects for Smart People will show you exactly how to do it.

Quill Driver Books Fall, 2017

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The perfect career guide for the era of the Ph.D. barista, the underpaid adjunct, and the gig economy, Passion Projects for Smart People will help you take charge of your career and your life. Written by a high school science teacher who has done field work on five continents, published in professional journals, and worked with NASA, the National Park Service and the University of California, Passion Projects for Smart People details how to turn side projects into career-development opportunities – how to develop your own research and creative projects, form collaborations with universities and public agencies, apply for grants and professional opportunities, travel around the world for free, and develop your career as a teacher and mentor.


This is the story of a ninth grade teacher who learned to do more with the resources he already had.  He did field work in the Galapagos, Alaska, Finland, Namibia, the United Arab Emirates, Costa Rica, the high Arctic, and the Pacific Ocean with outside organizations paying his way.  He published in peer-reviewed journals, won grants from corporations and the National Geographic Society, and collaborated with organizations like NASA, the University of California and the National Park Service.  His projects range from marine biology to high altitude gardening, to astrobiology, to archaeology.  It took time for him to discover opportunities that are hiding in plain sight.  One project would lead to another.  Doing projects made him more creative.  Along the way he met people who use ordinary resources to do remarkable things.  That teacher was me, and my life is richer now.

Where do I find the time?  I can afford to move ahead slowly on the projects since they’re not my primary source of income.  I spend only a couple of hours most weeks on all of these activities put together.  Most of my time goes to my students and my family.  My students participate in these extra-curricular projects, and as my own children get more involved in them, my family is starting to benefit too.  But really I do them for my own personal satisfaction.  I love coming to work in the morning.  I can’t retire; I would lose the affiliation with my school that makes some of this possible.

It sounds like extra work for no pay, but besides the fun of doing them sometimes projects lead to extra earnings and opportunities.  Once you become an expert on something, you can get hired for consulting services.  You can teach a class.  You may become eligible for free travel and conferences.  You may write a book that makes money.  The people I have profiled in this book earn money in all of these ways, and so do I.  Most years I supervise a class at my school for 11th and 12th graders called “independent science research” in addition to my full-time regular teaching, and I am paid extra for doing it.  If you are a teacher you may want to look into this possibility with your district.  I also get to travel for free to interesting places.

I’ve met people who exemplify this lifestyle in different ways.  A few are school teachers like me but there are also other working professionals, retirees, and stay-at-home parents.  Their areas of expertise include the natural sciences, anthropology, history, and the arts.  What they all have in common is projects that started small but got traction.  The payoffs were life-altering.  They have ongoing projects, institutional affiliations, and collaborators.  They apply for grants and apply to participate in programs.  They travel with professional purpose and often they get someone else to pay for it.  They mentor others and publish their results for posterity.  You can do these things too.  The following chapters give specific examples, from my own and other people’s experiences.

Table of Contents:

Chapter 1.  Have Projects
A horticulture project
A trees project
A microbiology project
A history/archaeology project
Profile:  D. S. (Dewey) Livingston, historian
A wildlife project
A trash project
Profiles:  Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang, Artists
Natural experiments and free data
Chapter 2.  Have Affiliations and Collaborate
Profile: Richard V. Wing, classicist
University extension schools
Profile:  William E. Motzer, expert witness
Profile:  Raymond “Bones” Bandar, collector
Chapter 3.  Apply for Things
Profile: Lindsay Knippenberg, polar traveler
Chapter 4.  Travel with Purpose/Travel for Free
Profile:  Kevin Witte, Geographer
Home exchanges
Profile:  William Schmoker, birder
Chapter 5.  Teach and Mentor
Best teaching practices
Adjunct teaching at universities
Profile:  Sharon Barnett, naturalist
Chapter 6. Citizen Science Programs
Profile:  Gretchen LeBuhn, professor
Profile:  John Wade, Farallon Patrol skipper
Chapter 7.  Publish Your Work
Profile:  Ralph C. Shanks, anthropologist
Poets have always been Hackademics
Profile: Prartho Sereno, Poet Laureate
Chapter 8.  How Projects fit into Happiness Theory
Profile: Charlotte Torgovitsky, native plant propagator
Projects and your Family

Teacher Travel Programs web sites
University Extension Schools web sites
Citizen Science Program web sites
A Successful Application: National Science Foundation’s PolarTREC Professional Development Program for Teachers
A Successful Application: National Geographic Society’s Waitt Grant for Research
A Successful Application:  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Ocean Guardian School Program
A Query Letter to an Agent

Author | Teacher | Scientist