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National Geographic Emerging Explorer Joe Grabowski Explores by the Seat of His Pants

This post is part of an ongoing series of interviews with the 2017 class of National Geographic Emerging Explorers.

Science and Math teacher Joe Grabowski is one of 14 National Geographic Emerging Explorers for 2017. This group is being honored for the way its members explore new frontiers and find innovative ways to remedy some of the greatest challenges facing our planet. The 2017 class of Emerging Explorers will be honored at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C. in June.

Joe is the founder of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants (EBTSOYP), a Canadian nonprofit with a primary goal of bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms across North America through guest speakers and virtual field trips. Since launching in September of 2015, EBTSOYP has hosted well over 300 Google Hangouts with leading scientists, explorers and conservationists from around the world, including several National Geographic explorers.

The primary goal of Exploring By The Seat Of Your Pants is to knock down classroom walls and take students anywhere in the world, never having to leave their desks. “We aim to accomplish this by connecting students with exciting guest speaker lessons and virtual field trips from around the world. Our focus is providing lessons related to science, exploration, adventure and conservation, but won’t be limited to these areas,” EBTSOYP says on its website. “Through our partnerships with individuals and organizations around the world, we strive to connect students with leading researchers, daring adventurers and innovative conservationists, and to give them the chance to ask big questions, meet meaningful role models and discover new career paths.”

Joe Grabowski. Credit: GuelphToday.com

For his work as an innovative educator, Grabowski has already been named a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and a Royal Canadian Geographical Society Fellow. Now, as a new National Geographic Emerging Explorer, we asked him about what inspires him, and what his dreams and hopes are for the future.

Why do you do what you do, and how does that make you an Emerging Explorer?

A teacher from Thunder Bay, Ontario describes me as the “World’s Best Ed Tech Travel Agent.” I’m not sure if I’m the world’s best anything, but the designation of Ed Tech Travel Agent might be the right fit. I started the educational nonprofit Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants with a goal of bringing science, exploration, adventure and conservation into classrooms across North America through virtual speakers and field trips.

Through EBTSYOP I’ve connected tens of thousands of students to leading experts from all over the world, introducing them to challenging issues, exciting places, strong role models and new career paths. With technology I can bring classrooms places they’ve never been able to visit before and highlight what it means to be a global citizen.

Along with monthly events we follow expeditions and host full day events celebrating themes like biodiversity, our oceans, women in STEM and space exploration. EBTSOYP is 100 percent free for classrooms, but we do seek out grants and sponsorships to fund satellite time for remote connections, but also to give back to innovative research, expedition and conservation projects around the world.

What did you want to be when you were grown up? How did that change and why?

After seeing Jurassic Park for the first time, I wanted to be a palaeontologist. That stuck with me for a while. I filled my room with dinosaur paraphernalia, pouring over books, even tying a bandana around my neck like Dr. Alan Grant.

Somewhere along the way I grew out of that phase. While studying biology in university, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I was living in Australia, traveling and diving, that I realized I wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to share my passion for science and nature with younger generations. In particular, I wanted to highlight how amazing our planet is and what we are doing to it. That became the driving force behind heading to teachers college upon my return to Canada and continues to push me as I grow and develop Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants.

Credit: Y.Bendo

What are the greatest opportunities for the rising generation of young people, and why?

I think technology is the key to the greatest opportunities, but at the same time, it’s one of the biggest pitfalls facing young people.

Technology has the power to open up the world, but slam the door at the same time. Too many students are allowing technology to have a negative influence on their lives, limiting time outdoors exploring and interacting face-to-face with peers.

There’s a rumor going around that there’s nothing left to explore and discover and that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are so many amazing opportunities for students to pursue in science and exploration, and new technology is and will be the greatest facilitator of this. We’re just scratching the surface of the amazing career opportunities that will be available to students in the fields of science and exploration. It’s an exciting time.

Looking back on what you have done, what are the biggest lessons learned? Opportunities taken and missed?

Biggest lesson I’ve learned is not to give myself an opportunity to talk myself out of taking risks. Too often people get excited about taking a risk or trying something new, but overthink and talk themselves out of it. When I was pondering the creation of Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, I had to push aside thoughts of what if I fail and that I really had no idea what I was undertaking.

Two years on, I still have no idea what I’m doing, but that’s part of the fun, and so far it seems to be working. The same doubts crept in when I wanted to launch our BGAN project; the units and satellite time are very expensive, how would I support it? I pushed those thoughts aside, found the grants and jumped in.

Who were (are) your heroes and mentors? Favorite authors and filmmakers? Who would you most like to meet?

Jacques Cousteau was a hero growing up; through his adventures I fell hard for our oceans and still savor every opportunity that comes along to dive in new places. I was thrilled to connect my class with his grandson Fabien while he was living on the ocean floor during Mission 31.

David Attenborough is a legend; he set the standard for nature documentaries, and the first time I saw Life of Mammals, it affected me in a way I’m not sure I can put into words. It really opened up a whole new way of looking at our natural world for me. If I could meet anyone, it would be David Attenborough.

Credit: Jillian_Morris

What is the best story you tell about yourself, a lesson learned, or a memorable (scary or thrilling) experience in the field?

When I travel, I love searching for animals in the wild, the rarer the better. This quest has definitely put me in some exciting and thrilling predicaments. Finding myself between a male cassowary and its chicks in the Daintree rainforest, a sunrise run on the beach with a pack of dingoes on Fraser Island, and dragging my less-than-thrilled wife into the woods for a late night kiwi stakeout in New Zealand are a few memorable highlights.

On a trip to Magnetic Island I was determined to see my first wild echidna. After crawling into bed at my hostel on the final night, I saw a spiky shadow move past the sliding door. Without a second thought I went bounding outside, armed with nothing more than my boxers and a camera. After a few pictures, an immense sense of satisfaction was quickly replaced by the realization that there were an awful lot of people still up on the restaurant patio!

What is your favorite species, and why? Your favorite place on the planet?

My favorite species has to be the platypus; it’s just so improbable and awesome. An egg-laying mammal, venomous, electroreception…what’s not to love? While living in Australia I went out of my way to try and see one in the wild. It wasn’t looking so good until a trip to Tasmania — it was only a short encounter at the edge of a river, but oh so satisfying!

My favorite place is the youngest island in the Galapagos, Fernandina. Last year I was selected as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, and with Lindblad Expeditions I was able to visit the Galapagos! I was standing on the black volcanic rock of Fernandina and looking across to the volcanoes of Isabella. There were sea lions and marine iguanas sunning themselves, a nest of flightless cormorants to the right and Galapagos hawks in a nearby tree. In the water, a dozen or so green sea turtles were bobbing at the surface as marine iguanas swam to and fro. It was amazing, I felt like I was glimpsing our natural world how it should be, perhaps how it was well before we started doing what we do best.

Joe Grabowski. Credit: Mark Woodward

What are your fears and hopes for the future?

My biggest hope for the future is this generation of students. We’ve saddled them with a huge burden. They have to try and correct the many mistakes we’ve made managing our planet, while growing up at a time where material possession and instant gratification have been pushed as the most important goals in life.

I do see a lot of reasons to be hopeful and optimistic. I get to interact with tens of thousands of students across North America each year. I see their curiosity, their passion and their willingness to get behind important causes. As many speakers share, the will and the technology is there.

The big fight now is the politics. Things change when enough people make their voice heard and force leaders to listen. My fear is that we may be too late or slow in acting to save much of our biodiversity and wild places. I do think about the state of the planet my 4-year-old and 7-month-old will be growing up on.

What should young people do if they want to pursue a career like yours?

If becoming a teacher is your goal you should find a way to bring what you’re passionate about into the classroom. Bringing my excitement for science and exploration into the classroom was the best thing I’ve ever done as a teacher. It’s completely changed my approach to teaching and made me re-evaluate what kinds of learning experiences are impactful for students. It’s made teaching more exciting for me and my students; passion is infectious.

Another tip is to be easy going and flexible, rarely do things go as planned in the classroom, and that’s not always a bad thing!

Tell us something that most people may not know about you?

I have an ironman streak going on in my teaching career. It’s been seven years now and I haven’t taken a sick day. Pretty good seeing as classrooms are essentially germ factories, I regularly treat expiration dates as loose guidelines and I’m not as diligent about washing my hands as I could be.

What is one thing you would really still like to see or do?

Wow, if only there was one thing. I’d love to visit Africa, hike up a volcano in Uganda to see mountain gorillas, pole through the Okavango Delta, swim with whale sharks and mantas in Mozambique, hangout with lemurs in Madagascar, and catch the great migration in Kenya. Top things off by live-streaming the sardine run into classrooms — that would be wild: birds dive-bombing, sharks and dolphins darting in and out, perhaps a whale busting in for its fair share. Oh yeah, and great whites in South Africa!

Want to show your students that science, exploration, and conservation are alive outside of their textbooks? Join a live video conference with a National Geographic explorer.

Want to become a National Geographic Explorer? Learn how you can apply for a grant from the National Geographic Society.

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