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Professor Alexa Schindel wearing a snorkel preparing for her trip to study plastic toxics in the ocean.

Published February 4, 2020

Galapagos or bust: Sailing off to classroom research

STEM professor joins all-women eXXpedition.com and sails from Panama to Galapagos: measuring plastic waste in the ocean and collecting science teaching ideas

Associate Professor Alexa Schindel started planning this semester’s ocean sabbatical work when she applied to join the S.V. TravelEdge sailboat a year ago — as soon as she got the email notice about “eXXpedition Round the World” research journey. She wrote an essay, did a video interview and won a spot on the nine-member team of volunteers who joined the crew on the women-only TravelEdge.

In the days ahead, as the boat finishes the 12-day, “Leg 6” trip from Panama to the Galapagos, she and eight other volunteers will trawl the ocean for small plastic bits, log the data and post on social media via satellite phone. This 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 they traverse the ocean to Australia, South Africa, South America, Greenland and for the finale finish back in London.

Schindel expects her journey will help her Buffalo work as she applies for grant funding to develop programs with local schools. Her plan: 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 to the tools of science to ask questions that matter to us,” she said. “What is it that we can do within our communities?”

Schindel’s love of science, outdoor exploration — and sailing — started early. She grew up the daughter of a pilot in Las Vegas and spent summers on the ocean in Bermuda.

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

“One 30L bag can actually hold all of my clothes and gear for 12 days on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean. That was my discovery after several hours of effort,” she wrote on Instagram at alexaxela.s. “As I stare at the smallest travel bag I’ve ever managed to pack, I’m a bit in awe thinking of the enormity of the adventure ahead.”

— Alexa Schindel, associate professor

After three years teaching 7th and 8th grade science, she decided to get her PhD in science education because she wanted to learn to better connect science to under-represented 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 the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper, a local nonprofit. The lessons about Love Canal, invasive species and water restoration helped her teaching.

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

“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.”

Learn how GSE faculty research what they teach

Join her journey on social media

Follow @alexaxela.s, @eXXpedition_ and @ubgse on Instagram.

Add #exxpedition and #PlasticsAmbassadors to your watch lists on social media.

Tuesday News Briefs feature the stories of the Graduate School of Education faculty, students and alumni who are engaged in their communities and making an impact through their hard work, dedication and research initiatives. If you have a story to share, please email us with the details for consideration as a future news feature.