In this installment of the TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the work of Guelph, Ontario intermediate teacher Joe Grabowski from St. John Catholic School in the Wellington Catholic District School Board. Grabowski has taken his students on more than 100 science-related adventures over the Internet in a program he calls 'Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.'
Joe Grabowski’s Grade 8 students have joined an expedition on an active volcano in Italy, hung out in an Adele penguin colony in Antarctica and chatted with an ocean explorer from the bottom of the ocean. What's more, they’ve done it all from the seats in their Guelph, Ontario classroom.
These are just three of the more than 100 science-related adventures the math and science teacher has embarked upon with his classes as a part of a growing program he calls ‘Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.’
“If you ask my students, they feel like the world is coming to our classroom,” says Grabowski, who aims to connect his class with 50 scientists, explorers and conservationists each year via Google Hangouts. “It makes my students feel important when scientists and explorers from around the world take time out of their busy schedules to share what they know with them.”
These cyber excursions have spanned the globe, from Europe and Asia to Africa and the Antarctic. Students have been along for the ride via these Hangouts on a kayaking expedition on the Amazon River, chatted with an astronaut at the NASA training facility in Houston, Texas, and joined a research team tagging blue whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
How It All Began
An avid diver, Grabowski came to this virtual excursions idea naturally when he shared his love of the oceans, including scuba diving with sharks, with his students. “My students were deep into it -- that is, until I mentioned sharks,” he explains. “The mood quickly changed to a mixture of horror and disgust.”
Desperate to help his students see the beauty of these toothy beasts, and having no luck doing so on his own, Grabowski turned to some shark researchers in the Bahamas to speak to his class via Skype. And it worked. Soon, students who wanted nothing to do with sharks wanted to find a way to protect them. “We started writing persuasive letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, using research to illustrate why shark fin products should be banned in Canada,” he says. “They also learned of an impending shark cull, a government policy of capturing and killing large sharks in the vicinity of swimming beaches, in Western Australia, and we began drafting open letters to Australian Premier Colin Barnett.”
Ultimately, the shark experiment set in motion a series of events that launched the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants sessions and completely flipped the way he teaches right on its head, Grabowski reports. “The primary goal is to knock down classroom walls and take students anywhere in the world, never having to leave their desks,” he says. While the focus is providing lessons related to science and conservation, the sessions are not limited to these areas.
What the Kids Learn
Giving kids the chance to ask big questions and meet meaningful role models are key educational components to the experience, Grabowski explains. “We believe these kinds of experiences inspire students while exposing them to amazing wonders and challenging issues around the globe,” he explains. “Students won't remember every math or language lesson from school, but they will remember the time they were hanging out in a penguin colony in Antarctica or chatting with someone who just rowed across an ocean.”
Along the way, Grabowski believes the adventures introduce students to exciting new projects, important issues and new careers while helping to create global citizens. “These experiences can supplement curriculum, but also create experiences that will stick with students,” he explains.
In particular, the growth in students’ questioning skills as the year progresses has been exciting, Grabowski reports. “In some of our first hangouts, students asked simple questions, along the lines of ‘What’s your favorite XYZ?’ or ‘Were you in danger?’ Later in the year, the questions became more sophisticated, often impressing our guests. It’s exciting for the students when a speaker responds with, ‘Wow, I’ve never been asked this question before!’ or ‘What grade are you guys in?!’
Increasingly, Grabowski’s students have been inspired to find ways to make sure their voices are heard when they are presented with a situation or issue that they find unjust, he says.
Among the most memorable Hangouts was with award-winning freelance journalist Anna Therese Day, who often covers conflict zones around the world, Grabowski reports. Therese Day had been covering climate change and its impact on an isolated chain of islands called Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. She explained to the students how the islands are slowly disappearing as sea levels rise. “Anna showed them pictures of people’s houses and land disappearing, and shared interviews with children,” he says. “They were stunned by the injustice, that a country like Kiribati, having contributed nothing to global climate change, would be one of the first countries to pay the ultimate price. I think this was the first time that the seriousness of climate change clicked with my students.”
Another exciting offshoot of the program was when the class invited the three founding marine biologists from the US-based Sharks4Kids (Grabowski is the group's director of education) to share their knowledge with the students. Through crowdfunding, school board and community support, the class raised enough to bring the team to Guelph. “For five days, they made interactive presentations about shark and ocean conservation at 20 schools,” says Grabowski. “My students’ learning had spread to over 6,000 students! What a lesson, seeing firsthand, that their voices matter and can be heard on the other side of the planet. That what they have to say is important, and that opening their minds and thinking critically is more satisfying than automatically accepting one version of a story.”
Sharing the Learning
With his students having so much fun and learning so much from the sessions, Grabowski decided he should find a way to share them with more kids. As a result, he turned his classroom adventures into a not-for-profit organization called Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants which gives students around the world the chance to join in on these trips.
Now, classrooms anywhere can participate in the free events by watching the live stream on the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants YouTube channel. They can also register for webcam spots that allow them to interact with the speaker during the live event. Or, classes can catch up on the fun by watching the finished streams anytime on YouTube.
“A classroom isn’t meant to be a contained environment,” Grabowski insists. “The students, and their learning, should spill out all around the world! This is what Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants is all about. We never know where a connection will take us. What activities it will inspire. What the scientists and explorers will have to share. We are literally, exploring by the seat of our pants!”
Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this teacher in Share under: TeachOntario Talks Discussions: World Scientists Join Students in Guelph Classroom Via Google Hangouts