Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants

green educator

Photograph by Steve Morash

Joe Grabowski is a sixth and eighth grade science and math teacher in Guelph, Ontario. He has been teaching for five years.

My classes use technology to explore the world. In the last year and a half we’ve connected, via Skype and Google Hangout, with more than 70 scientists, explorers, and conservationists from around the world—all without ever leaving our desks. We call it “Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants.” We’ve joined an expedition on an active volcano, hung out in an Adélie penguin colony, shared stories with Fabien Cousteau from the ocean floor, and watched a wild shark get tagged at a lab in Bimini, in the Bahamas. We’ve learned about cultures and environmental challenges in Iceland, Afghanistan, Ecuador, Antarctica, and Timor Leste, to name a few. Along the way we’ve been privy to unpublished research, never-before-seen footage, and pioneering conservation projects.

The team from the Bimini Biological Field Station, performing a scientific work up on a juvenile nurse shark as Joe’s class watches via Skype. Photograph by Bimini Biological Field Station

My students’ guest teachers are National Geographic explorers, Mission 31 aquanauts, marine biologists, rocket scientists, videographers, endurance athletes, environmental activists, and even other students. Our lessons are often tied into our science and geography units, but many times we make connections just for the enjoyment of learning about something new. These connections have lead to countless exciting and unexpected journeys. My students have learned more about our planet and what we are doing to it than I could have ever hoped for.

How did this activity impact your students? Did students change an aspect of their behavior or way of thinking?

Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants has made science fun and exciting for my students. Many were used to science periods consisting of reading from textbooks or taking notes from overhead projectors. Now science is something they look forward to, and they often head home to research the people and places we’ve connected with.

I’ll never forget watching these two groups of children, laughing and dancing together from thousands of miles away.

Another area that has grown in leaps and bounds is their questioning skills. Since the beginning of the school year, questions like What’s your favorite ocean animal? have been replaced with What kinds of symbiotic relationships do you see in the coral reef ecosystem? It’s amazing for them to have their questions fielded by a leading expert—someone who can answer them with fresh data or an amazing story from the field.

Joe’s grade 8 students’ perspective as they meet the shark star of the Skype session. This is one of nearly 100 connections with scientists, explorers, and conservationists that his class has made. Photograph by Joe Grabowski

What academic subjects did you integrate into this activity?

The area that I integrate the most into this activity is science. I began to set these connections up as a supplement to a biodiversity unit. It seemed like a great fit, having some scientists from around the world teach my students about the different species and ecosystems they study. It took off from there when we decided to aim for 50 connections throughout the school year.

We’ve integrated other curriculum areas as well. When studying Canada’s trading partners, we connected with several classrooms in countries that Canada trades with. After connecting with marine biologist and Sharks4Kids founder Jillian Morris, my class was motivated to do something to help protect sharks. We were studying persuasive writing, so we decided to draft open letters to the premier of Western Australia to voice our opinions about the shark cull that was about to begin. We received a disappointing response from the premier and immediately wrote back. In the process we made local and international headlines, we even made a video for a conservation group in Western Australia and did a radio interview in Perth. My students definitely learned that their voices could be heard, even on the other side of the world.

How does teaching with a global perspective impact your students?

I think one of the biggest eye openers for my students is that the world isn’t quite as big as they thought it was and that their actions and choices can be felt even in the most isolated regions of our planet. A lesson that really drove that home was when we connected with Emily Penn, expedition leader, skipper, artist, and oceans advocate. She is the director of Pangaea Explorations, taking scientists to remote regions of the oceans to study plastic pollution in the five gyres. It blew my students’ minds to learn about a huge plastic patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the impact it is having on marine life. Images of pristine beaches covered in plastic debris and dead albatross with stomachs filled with everything from lighters to toothbrushes shocked them. It caused many to rethink their use of plastics and how they dispose of waste.

Last year’s map showing the connections Joe’s made with scientists all over the world. Photograph by Joe Grabowski

What is one simple activity that any educator could do with their students to get them thinking about the world?

A great activity to start off with is to connect with another classroom somewhere in the world. You can use Skype in the Classroom and Google Connected Classrooms. In terms of guest teachers, I’ll look online for scientists or explorers that fit particular units. I send an initial email, explaining what I’m doing in my classroom and why we’d like to connect. From there it takes a couple back and forth emails to confirm a date and time.

My class has a blast playing a game called Mystery Skype, connecting with classrooms around the world and racing to identify each others locations through a series of yes and no questions. Afterwards we share about our daily lives and cultures. One call with a group of children in Uganda really stood out. With limited access technology in Africa, it was their first time using video calling. They were so excited, they started teaching my students some of their traditional dances. I’ll never forget watching these two groups of children, laughing and dancing together from thousands of miles away.

Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you in your personal life or in your teaching?

A simple quote from Jacques Cousteau: “People protect what they love.”

I hope that by sharing my passion for the natural world and introducing my students to amazing places and people from around the world, they will be inspired to do the same.

5 thoughts on “Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants

  1. Thank you so much for the inspiration. I recently connected with Andrea Marshall of Marine Megafauna Foundation, she suggested your blog. Our school is transitioning to a STEM school next year and we recently acquired a poly-cam. I am excited to begin building relationships and connecting with scientists and engineers all over the world. I hope it will inspire our kids to dream big!

  2. Totally inspiring, nice work, I am going to try this in Halifax. Thank you for taking the time to share!

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