Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants
Originally appears in the Fall 2015 issue
An astronaut at the NASA Training Facility in Houston, Texas breaks down the ins and outs of spacesuits and dehydrated meals, from her hotel room in Ecuador a National Geographic Emerging Explorer describes the excitement of discovering two new species of manta rays and a journalist in Palestine shares the hopes and fears of isolated Pacific islanders whose homes are slowly disappearing beneath the waves. What seem like a series of unrelated, fascinating events, is actually just a typical day in my eighth grade classroom. We’re ‘Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants,’ it’s easy and your students can do it too!
I’ve been teaching for five years now and two years ago I was searching for something to breathe some new life into my science units. As a former biological sciences major I strive to share my passion for science and nature in a meaningful way with my students. In September 2013, I started reaching out to scientists from around the world to chat with my students via Skype as a supplement to our biodiversity unit. What was meant to be a few unique experiences, quickly took on a life of its own and grew into a challenge to connect with 50 scientists, adventurers and conservationists from around the world by years end. Joining an expedition on an active volcano in Italy, hanging out in an Adelie penguin colony in Antarctica and chatting with Fabien Cousteau (grandson of Jacques) from a lab on the seafloor barely scratches the surface of my classes now over 80 connections. And we are just getting started!
At this point you’re hopefully a little excited, curious and full of questions about the project. You might even be feeling a little overwhelmed, so was I when I started! I want to take a moment here to assure you that a program like this can easily be implemented in your classroom. Really! Bringing the world into your classroom can be as easy as drafting a few emails. I am regularly asked how I find the speakers and where do I find the time. In the next few paragraphs I’m going to give you some simple steps and helpful hints to get started in your own classroom this year.
So how do you do it? In my classroom we use two platforms for our connections, Skype and Google Hangouts. Skype is excellent for setting up your own one on one connections, whereas Google Hangouts allows multiple classrooms to share the experience and is favoured by many groups that offer virtual field trips. The technology required is minimal, a computer with a webcam is enough, but it’s a huge plus to have a projector or Smartboard for a more enjoyable viewing experience for an entire class.
In order to start finding and connecting with guest speakers, I used a website affiliated with Skype called Skype in the Classroom. It’s an easy to navigate website, supporting a global community that has quickly grown to over 80,000 educators. You can easily search for guest speakers and send them direct messages to arrange classroom lessons. There are also tons of opportunities with this program to connect with other classrooms, to share in teacher created lessons or to play games like Mystery Skype. When I became more experienced and confident in securing speakers, I moved on to seeking guest speakers independently via the internet, introductions from past speakers and even people I see in programs on TV. This way I can search for speakers directly related to where we are in the curriculum. From there I can send potential speakers an email introducing what we are doing in the classroom and asking if they’d like to join us. The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, which was the opposite of what I initially expected. When I first started reaching out to National Geographic Explorers or scientists from documentaries, I was sure that the response would be no, or more likely no response at all. I was dead wrong, the general response has been excitement and eagerness to take part. Many of these individuals remember how powerful it was to be introduced to the right role model and a common comment is how they wish their teachers had done the same. Sometimes you might not hear back right away, but that’s the nature of reaching out to a scientist or explorer who can be in the field for weeks at a time. When I do get a ‘no’ response, it’s usually a time issue and it often comes with a suggestion for someone else in the field who could step in. Usually it just takes a few back and forth emails to set up a date, time and format. The two most common formats have been the guest speaker preparing a lesson or an informal Q&A with some links, videos or pictures shared in advance. It’s very easy for a guest speaker to share their screen to show PowerPoints, pictures and video to your students.
Beyond chats with science celebrities, is the opportunity to take your class on regularly scheduled virtual field trips. I have been using two great options to take my class out in the field from the comforts of our classroom. For Connected Classrooms, Google has partnered with several institutions to provide great live field trips to places like zoos and aquariums. If you can’t make a session live, they are all recorded directly to YouTube and can be watched on the event page afterwards. A session that’s always stood out for me was one through National Geographic of four explorers deep in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, setting up transmitters to monitor water quality. You couldn’t ask for a more African scene, a vast green plain interrupted by a meandering river, sure to be teeming with hippos and crocodiles below the surface. Exotic bird calls created a wonderful soundtrack and a large bull elephant crossing the river made for the perfect ending. Google Cultural Institute is an amazing website where you and your students can easily get lost for hours at whatever time meets your schedule. Your class can visit world heritage sites like Robben Island, complete with 360 degree views and a former inmate as your tour guide. Many of the world’s museums and art galleries are wide open, you can ‘walk’ the hallways and zoom into the paintings to see the individual brush strokes, all in high resolution.
‘Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants,’ as we have coined the project, comes from the fact that the whole world is open to our class and we never even have to leave our desks. The name is also a great fit because we never know where a connection will lead us to next! As an avid diver, I set up several connections for my students focusing on our oceans, particularly sharks. After connecting with marine biologist and Sharks4Kids founder Jillian Morris, my students were able to set aside the myths and unfounded fears surrounding these animals. They realized that they are actually in a lot of trouble, with 100 million being removed from our oceans each year. Upon learning of a shark cull beginning in Western Australia, my students decided to do something by writing open letters to the Premier of Western Australia. He replied with a disappointing response, leaving us no choice but to counter. In the process we made local and international headlines, created videos for conservation groups, did radio interviews with stations in Perth and attracted guest speakers to come to our school in person. This is but one example of the many unexpected paths our connections have lead us on so far.
You similarly have your own passions, find a way to incorporate them into your explorations. Your students will feed off of your enthusiasm and you’ll have a blast as well. Talk to your students, let them pick the pathways from time to time. They’ll love it and you’ll never get better writing assignments from them than after they’ve been introduced to an issue that excites or angers them. If you connect with a speaker that resonates with your students, don’t stop there. Dig deeper, make some more connections and find a way to turn it into a larger project. Let your students exercise their voices and speak out about a conservation or social justice issue they’ve discovered, whether through open letters or a video. Send them out to a conservation group or someone in government, let them see how powerful their voices can be, even from a far. Ten years from now your students will have forgotten probably every math lesson from elementary school, but they’ll never forget the time they hung out with penguins in Antarctica or learned about canned hunting from a conservationist is South Africa.
I have already mentioned that the response has been excellent so far from both sides, with many of our guests excited to try this for the first time, having never connected this way with students before. Once and a while, one of our scientist guest speakers can get a little too technical, teaching a bit above my students grade level. I can recall one speaker who began to explain island ecology and evolution in terms well above my grade 8’s understanding. Meanwhile, I was quite fascinated, and it wasn’t until afterwards that I realized that some of the lesson was lost on my students. It’s important to let your speakers know the age level they will be speaking with, and step back once in a while to keep that in mind yourself. I use technology as well to help aid my students in these situations. For some sessions, I’ll pass out iPads and Chromebooks that students can use to dig deeper into anything they are unsure about and to help quickly generate some questions while we still have the guest available to us. Sometimes the speakers will even challenge the students to find something using their classroom devices.
Curriculum:Where Does it Fit?
Science is the obvious subject area that benefits the most from this activity. Picture a space unit complete with a Q&A with an astronaut, a virtual tour of a telescope on the top of an extinct volcano in Hawaii, a breakdown of the Mars Rover with a member of the Mars Science Laboratory and a lesson on the search for intelligent life in the universe with an astrobiologist! My students have the chance to connect with world leading experts from a variety of fields, and learn firsthand how global issues like climate change, overfishing and habitat loss are disrupting our planet. Yours can too, you’ve just got to ask. We’ve been privy to unpublished research, unreleased video footage and pioneering conservation work. Their questioning skills have grown in leaps and bounds, from ‘What’s your favourite sea creature?’ to ‘What types of symbiotic relationships do you see on the coral reef?’
Social studies and geography are great fits as well, as students build mapping skills and learn about new cultures from around the world. During our trading partners unit, we connected with classrooms from a top trading partner, to learn about their economies. We connected with a classroom in Brazil to brainstorm ideas for how we could each green our respective schools. After implementing some of the ideas, we reconnected to each share our successes. Language is full of possibilities, whether connecting with an author or matching up your classroom with reading buddies or pen pals from another country (that may even speak a different first language). We have presented our science projects to other classes throughout the United States and took our persuasive writing to the next level after learning about canned hunting in Africa. One option we’ve never tired, but is on my ever growing list of possibilities, would be a book study. We could find a class anywhere else in the world reading the same novel and continuously connect throughout to share thoughts and questions. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity!
Broaden Your Horizons
Since starting the project, I have been drawn into joining the action and began to teach my own Skype lessons on scuba diving and issues facing our oceans to classrooms in Ireland, India and Argentina to name a few. My relationship with Sharks4Kids, which started by asking Jillian Morris to speak with my students, has grown into the role of director of education. Each month I host a Marine Science Hangout with a different marine scientist from somewhere in the world. We often reach up to 50 classrooms each session. Most recently, I connected with two adventurers based in the UK who are embarking on an epic adventure to kayak the entire length of the Amazon River. I hosted a Google Hangout with them, live from Lima, Peru days before their departure. We’ll connect again about halfway through their trip and again in Rio when they’ve completed the paddle. The whole way along, classrooms from around the world can follow their progress and then join in on the hangouts. As you can see, there are lots of opportunities for teachers to jump in and join the fun! You really never know where a connection could take you or your students, amazing opportunities are waiting for you just around the corner, or rather on the computer screen. These connections could have a tremendous impact on your student’s futures, introducing them to an exciting career in the sciences and giving them a path to follow and a potential mentor to learn from. The great thing about social media is that most scientists and adventurers we connect with can now be found on Twitter or Facebook and are more than happy to be contacted by students afterwards.
In the classroom, we compete for the attention of our students and we don’t always win. Smartphones, reality TV, video games, terrible celebrity role models and a never ending stream of advertisements are worthy adversaries. Exploring by the Seat of Our Pants has given me a tool to help grab my students attention and to expose them to an amazing world and a variety of social justice issues far beyond our local community. They meet amazing role models who challenge them with different perspectives, new knowledge and amazing feats of endurance. Few things are more rewarding than being told by parents that their son or daughter talks their ear off about one of our speakers or gets home and spends the night further researching them and what they shared. All of this may seem daunting at first, and I’m not saying that you have to take things to the level that I have in my classroom, I’ve definitely blown the walls right off. However, I am challenging you to crack the window a little, to reach out and make a connection or two. I guarantee that neither you, nor your students, will be disappointed.
To view the photo-rich magazine version, click here.
Joe Grabowski is a grade 8 science and math teacher in Guelph, Ontario. He’s an avid diver, living the life aquatic whenever possible. He has just launched the not-for-profit Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants with two goals, to connect classrooms with guest speakers and virtual field trips from around the world and to help fund innovative research, conservation and expeditions. He has partner groups lined up from around the world to provide content, and there will be more exciting opportunities added on a regular basis. See http://exploringbytheseat.com
Skype in the Classroom https://education.skype.com/
Google Connected Classroom https://connectedclassrooms.withgoogle.com/
Sharks4Kids (dip your toes in the water with an amazing lesson on sharks and their conservation) http://sharks4kids.com/
Amazon River Run (follow along, keep an eye out for Hangouts from the river and afterwards) http://www.amazonriverrun.com/