Bull Sharks, Bimini, and Disappearing Islands: How Exploring By the Seat of Your Pants Blasts the Walls Off My Classroom

When Joe Grabowski's students reacted with horror to his stories about sharks, Grabowski took a novel approach to help these sharkaphobes get over their fear. Joe found shark researchers from the Bahamas to chat with his students online. Since that day, Joe's students have gone on over 100 global expeditions—meeting penguins, astronauts, and scuba divers. This is Joe's story.

Shark Researchers working at Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas.

Photo credit to Bimini Biological Field Station

Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants was a program born out of my students’ aversion to sharks and my desire to bring science and nature into the classroom. It began a couple of years ago when I began to share with my new sixth grade class some of my scuba diving adventures around the world. My students were deep into it—that is, until I mentioned sharks. The mood quickly changed to a mixture of horror and disgust. I shared stories, threw statistics at them, but no dice, their opinions were set.

My students were deep into it—that is, until I mentioned sharks.

I thought about how I could possibly shift their mindset and decided to contact some marine biologists from around the world to have them speak to my class via Skype. I’m glad I did because it set in motion a series of events that flipped the way I teach right on its head.


Joe diving with Caribbean Reef sharks in Bimini.

Photo credit to Jillian Morris

If you ask my students, they feel like the world is coming to our classroom. It makes them feel important when scientists and explorers from around the world take time out of their busy schedules to teach them. Each year, my class sets out to connect with 50 scientists, explorers, and conservationists from around the globe. Using Google Hangouts, my class has joined a kayaking expedition on the Amazon River, an astronaut at the NASA training facility in Houston, Texas, and a team tagging blue whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

My students were having a blast and learning so much during the hangouts, really becoming global citizens. It seemed foolish not to find a way to share this with more classrooms around the world. So I designed Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, an online tool for educators to connect their classes with researchers, adventurers, and conservationists, and to give other students the chance to ask big questions and discover meaningful role models.


Joe's students hung out with an astronaut from the NASA Training Facility in Houston.

Photo credit to Eric Kilby

One of my students all-time favourite connections was with Anna Therese Day, an award-winning, independent journalist who often covers conflict zones. Anna had recently returned from an isolated chain of islands called Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean. She was covering climate change and how these tiny islands were slowly disappearing beneath the waves as sea levels increased. Anna showed them pictures of people’s houses and land disappearing, and shared interviews with children. 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.

I think this was the first time that the seriousness of climate change clicked with my students.

They have heard that climate change is happening, that the consequences will be serious, and that their actions have an impact on far-off places. Until this lesson, they just had a series of facts. Now they had faces and stories to make the pieces fall into place, and the curiosity to ask more questions.

The growth in questioning skills is exciting to witness as the year progresses. In the beginning, I was so worried about guiding my students' questions and what the speaker's perception of my class would be, that I think I lessened the impact of the hangout by taking away the opportunity for my students to make some mistakes and learn from them. Once I realized I had to step back and let my students take charge, hangouts became more meaningful to them. 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?!”

It’s exciting for the students when the speaker responds with, "Wow, I’ve never been asked this question before!”

Through Exploring by the Seat of My Pants my students have been inspired to look for ways to have their voices heard when introduced to an issue that they don’t think is right. It was apparent after the first couple of Skype dates with the shark researchers, that my class, previously wanting nothing to do with sharks, suddenly 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. 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 Premier Colin Barnett.

Joe's Class

National Geographic Explorer, Shah Selbe, talking with Joe's class about satellite propulsion systems.

Photo credit to Joe Grabowski

One of the marine biologists we had originally connected with runs an organization called Sharks4Kids. We invited the three founding marine biologists from Bimini and Florida to share their awesome knowledge with our school community. Through a combination of crowdfunding, and school board and community support we got them to Guelph. For five days, they made interactive presentations about shark and ocean conservation at 20 schools. 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.

A classroom isn’t meant to be a contained environment. 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— and where the name comes from. We never know where a connection will take us. What activities it will inspire. What the scientists and explorers will have to share. It proves that a classroom doesn’t have to have walls. We can drop in anywhere in the world with a few clicks of the mouse and rub elbows with experts or other classrooms and never leave our desks. Literally, exploring by the seat of our pants!

Visit the Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants website