- Associated Press - Thursday, April 3, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - On a windy ranch south of town, Michael Barker coaches four of his donkeys how to pull a cart. The other 10 graze in a space shared with two horses and chickens, dogs, rabbits and cats.

The civil and architectural engineering professor at the University of Wyoming - with a specialty in steel bridges - has spent most of his adult life teaching.

He translates complex physics and math into the basics for beginning students. Outside of class, he and his wife, Susan, teach children how to work the land at their ranch, Windy Springs. Barker also leads Sunday school at Grace Baptist Church.

Barker didn’t start off thinking he would teach.

He said he always loved building things and taking them apart, and loved math and science in school.

“Buildings and bridges excited me,” Barker said. “It was only natural to go into engineering.”

That led him to his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Purdue University, where things changed.

“Through my master’s, I found a love for teaching,” Barker said. “We have many students who struggle, and I work with them quite a bit. It’s also one of the most rewarding parts, to help students overcome those obstacles and be successful.”

Barker earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, then he joined the University of Missouri-Columbia faculty and stayed for 13 years before coming to UW in 2003.

He and Susan moved to Laramie for the lifestyle change, he said, and eventually his four children followed them.

Barker and his wife breed miniature donkeys, usually sold as pets because of their docile nature, Barker said. He taught four of his donkeys to pull a cart and is trying to teach two more. He and his sons pack up their donkeys and go elk hunting once a year, and keep the other animals simply for enjoyment. Families also come out to the ranch to learn about the animals and how to ranch.

One of his longest-standing passions, however, is being part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Urban Search and Rescue program. He has been with the program since 1992.

The teams are sent to disaster areas to work with local law enforcement and engineers on the best way to approach affected buildings or structures. He said the main objective is to help manage risk going into collapsing buildings.

In 2001, he worked 21-hour days for nine days after the World Trade Center collapsed, searching for victims and assessing damage. Four years later, he spent 19 days in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, working on a lift bridge that had collapsed and was flooded.

He serves as a technical expert but also teaches training courses for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. As a structures specialist, he works with local engineers around the world, including previous trips to Singapore and Indonesia, how to respond to disasters.

“It is very emotional,” Barker said. “One of the tougher parts is being put in that situation and having the responsibility of the safety of your team and the dangers that you’re working in. In rescue engineering, where the risks are high but the reward is high, they are there and they can save lives by participating in that program.”

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Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com

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