Your colleagues

Galapagos or bust: Sailing away for classroom teaching

Closeup of Alexa Schindel in snorkel gear.

By MICHELLE KEARNS

Published February 6, 2020

headshot of Alexa Schindel.
“The issue of micro plastics is a really big issue in the Great Lakes, just as they are in the ocean. The goal is to advance a better understanding of the plastic issue as a whole and address knowledge gaps.”
Alexa Schindel, associate professor
Department of Learning and Instruction

Graduate School of Education faculty member Alexa Schindel started planning for her sabbatical a year ago when she received an email about the “eXXpedition Round the World” research journey.

She then applied to join the S.V. TravelEdge sailboat — she wrote an essay and did a video interview to win a spot on the nine-member team of volunteers who would join the crew on the women-only TravelEdge.

The boat left Panama on Jan. 28 and is in the final stages of the 12-day, “Leg 6” trip from Panama to the Galapagos, where Schindel, associate professor of learning and instruction, and eight other volunteers are trawling the ocean for small plastic bits, logging the data and posting on social media via satellite phone.

This trip is their contribution to the boat’s larger, two-year project, which started in England last year. By 2021, the eXXpedition crew expects to finish 30 voyage legs, logging data about plastic waste in the water as the boat traverses the oceans to Australia, South Africa, South America, and Greenland, and finishes the journey back to the U.K.

Schindel expects her ocean journey will help her work at UB as she applies for grant funding to develop programs with local schools. Her plan: to engage students and develop unique and local environmental study projects.

“Within my teaching and with my research, we look at ways that everyone can use the tools of science to ask questions about their lives. We can use the tools of science to ask questions that matter to us,” she told UBNow before she left for Panama. “What is it that we can do within our communities?”

Schindel’s love of science, outdoor exploration — and sailing — started early. She grew up in Las Vegas, and as the daughter of a pilot she went sailing as a girl when her family spent summers in Bermuda.

“I’m such an adventure-based person,” said Schindel, who took up kite surfing on Lake Erie after she moved to Western New York. “My heart gets filled up being on the water.”

After three years teaching seventh and eighth grade science, she decided to get her PhD in science education because she wanted to learn to better connect science to underrepresented communities and social justice. Her interest in developing curriculum led to her current passion for what she calls “place-based science,” or studying the science connected to where you live.

She explored this concept several years ago when she took a class about local water issues and the Great Lakes with local nonprofit Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper. The lessons about Love Canal, invasive species and water restoration helped her teaching.

She expects the sail from Panama to the Galapagos will help make new connections for work in local classrooms. She’s noticed how young people notice — and get frustrated by — trash in their neighborhoods. That, she said, can be a start for pursuing science and research.

“The issue of micro plastics is a really big issue in the Great Lakes, just as they are in the ocean,” Schindel said. “The goal is to advance a better understanding of the plastic issue as a whole and address knowledge gaps.”