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Elora teacher brings science, fun to the classroom

Exploring - Elora resident and elementary school teacher Joe Grabowski was named a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic in 2016 and travelled to the Galapagos. On the island of Fernandina he met marine iguanas. Now Grabowski is up for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize.  Submitted photo

Elora teacher brings science, fun to the classroom

by Jaime Myslik

ELORA - A local elementary school teacher is receiving international recognition for a program he created to bring real-time science, adventure and exploration to the classroom.

Elora resident Joe Grabowski is a Grade 7 math and science teacher at St. John Catholic School in Guelph.

He would be in his seventh year of teaching if he wasn’t on sabbatical to complete an Education Fellowship with National Geographic.

Now he’s also up for a $1 million award through the Global Teacher Prize.

It all began during the 2013-14 school year, when Grabowski realized he wasn’t doing what he wanted to be doing in his classroom.

“I became a teacher because I wanted to share my passions for science and adventure and exploration and what we’re doing to our planet - and I just wasn’t doing it the way I wanted to,” he said.

“I was using the textbook too much, too much pen to paper and I knew that I wasn’t enjoying it, so the students wouldn’t be as well.”

Then he heard Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, Fabien Cousteau, would be living at the bottom of the ocean in the world’s only underwater laboratory for a month in 2014.

“What caught my attention was that he was going to Skype with classrooms from there, so I thought ‘my classroom is going to be one of those,’” Grabowski said.

“So, I set out to make that happen.”

The idea snowballed and his students connected with 52 scientists, adventurers and conservationists from around the world. All were reached through cold emails to people Grabowski had seen in documentaries and/or read and learned about.

“I was loving it, the students were loving it,” Grabowski said. “They were getting to see real issues that are happening around the world, meet the scientists and the explorers who are trying to solve some of the problems and have seen things first-hand.”

In 2014-15 his class made 25 connections.

“I was sitting around that summer and I had connections all over the world ... over 100 amazing contacts and it just seemed strange that only a handful of students were taking part each year,” he said.

“So, I founded Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants ... and the goal is to bring science, adventure, exploration, conservation to classrooms across North America.”

In any given session, seven different classrooms, as well as the presenter and a host, are connected via Google Hangouts to have an interactive conversation.

The sessions are streamed live on YouTube and are available after the session is complete.

Grabowski said there are now over 5,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms participating in Canada and the U.S., with oversees classes starting to come on board.

That translates into tens of thousands of students experiencing first-hand interaction with explorers, adventurers and scientists.

“We’re a non-profit and I made a pledge early on that I would never charge classrooms because I know what it’s like as a classroom teacher and ... depending on where you teach, there isn’t a lot of extra money,” he said.

“What I’m trying to do is level the playing field so any classroom, anywhere can take part in any event whenever they want, as many as they want and it doesn’t cost them anything.”

Each month Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants offers 15 to 30 sessions with a range of presenters, such as representatives from the sea turtle hospital in the Florida Keys, researchers at the penguin rehabilitation centre in South Africa, or explorers at the top of a volcano in Guatemala.

The sessions are generally about 45 minutes long with 20 minutes or so dedicated to a presentation about the speaker and their work and the remainder open to students to ask questions.

In 2016 Grabowski was named a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow with National Geographic, a professional development program for teachers doing exciting things in geo-literacy and science.

He attended workshops in Washington and went on an expedition to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.

“There’s no place I wanted to visit more on the planet, so it was pretty amazing,” Grabowski said.

“It was kind of like the ultimate professional development experience for teachers.

“You get to meet and collaborate with a bunch of cool teachers around North America and then you go on the expedition ... when you get back you take that new learning, you take what you’ve done, you build lesson plans, do presentations in the community, share them with other teachers, work them into your classroom.”

From there Grabowski and National Geographic developed Explorer Classroom.

“It’s basically Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants but Nat Geo-style, so we feature exclusively Nat Geo explorers and grantees,” he said.

In 2017 Grabowski was named one of 14 emerging explorers asked to join National Geographic and from there he was named the first Education Fellow, which allowed him to grow both Explorer Classroom and Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.

“I grew up reading National Geographic and it’s the explorers and a lot of what I read ... (that) really influenced who I am, and so for National Geographic to reach out, out of the blue and say ‘Hey congratulations, we’re bringing you into the family’ is pretty incredible,” he said.

“And something I never would have expected as a classroom teacher, ever.”

In 2017 Grabowski also applied to the Global Teacher Prize.

“It’s a global search ... for educators who are doing innovative ... exciting things in their classroom ... going above the standard textbook and they really have a big push on global citizenship,” he said.

In December Grabowski learned he was one of the top 50 finalists out of 30,000 to 40,000 applicants from around the world. He’s the only Canadian this year.

“The prize serves to underline the importance of educators and the fact that, throughout the world, their efforts deserve to be recognized and celebrated,” a press release states.

In February, Grabowski  will learn if he’s one of the top 10 teachers.

“Those 10 teachers will go to Dubai for something called the Global Education Skills Forum,” he said. “They announce the winner on stage ... at the end of the conference.”

The price is $1 million, a sum that Grabowski says will largely go into expanding Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants and maybe taking it global.

“One idea I’ve been ... playing around with is starting little hubs. So a little hub in Australia, a little hub in the UK, maybe a little hub in Latin America,” he said.

“The hub is really just ... a handful of hosts ... and we can have them running 24/7 all over the world.”

For more information about Grabowski’s program visit

January 12, 2018


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