Portrait of Alexa Schindel captaining a sail boat.

Alexandra Schindel, an associate professor specializing in science education in the Department of Learning and Instruction, takes the helm of the eXXpedition research sailboat during the 10-day Panama-to-Galapagos leg of the crew’s journey to circumnavigate the globe and raise awareness as they measure plastics water pollution, Feb. 2, 2020. (Photo/Jessica Patterson)

Galapagos-to-Buffalo and pandemic workarounds: Plastics research expedition sheds light on teaching—about science and amidst a shutdown

Taking ocean plastics research to Buffalo classrooms with some bonus virus-inspired insight


Plastic finds during the Galapagos sail included this micro piece held between two fingers.

A Croc sandal floating by Feb. 1, 2020. Photo by Schindel’s eXXpedition crew mate Candy Medusa.

Schindel’s elementary school methods graduate class analyzes plastic waste along Buffalo’s Scajaquada Creek.

Schindel’s elementary school methods graduate class analyzes plastic waste along Buffalo’s Scajaquada Creek.

That afternoon’s haul included a handful of cigar tips.

The charming, direct questions that third graders had about her sabbatical plastics research sailboat trip to the Galapagos Islands gratified and inspired Alexandra Schindel, an associate professor specializing in science education in the Department of Learning and Instruction.

She knew the importance of connecting science to students’ lives. Their wonder was heartening. She hadn’t been sure how to make ocean research relevant to Buffalo students more familiar with Lake Erie than the Pacific Ocean. She could see promise in their curiosity.

“Why can’t the turtles and fish just stay away from the plastic?” and “What are micro-plastics and are they more harmful than any other plastics?” were on a list of queries emailed to Schindel from Tapestry Charter School’s Friendly Frogs and Fantastic Fishes classes.

The exchange followed her return from the Galapagos Islands and was one of the many virtual learning adaptations of last spring. Virus-provoked changes swept the world following Schindel’s February adventure across the equator with the all-women crew, collecting information to help solve the world’s plastics-pollution problem by gathering information and raising awareness. Schindel joined volunteers for one 10-day leg of the eXXpedition trek to circumnavigate the globe, measuring and logging plastics water pollution to build a data set with global reach.

When she returned to Buffalo, Schindel read through student queries and responded in a video chat instead of visiting the class in person as she once had planned. In spite of the pandemic, the most stunning lesson of Schindel’s journey made its way to teacher Melissa Leopard’s virtual Tapestry school classroom: Plastics pollution is omnipresent.

It permeates the sand of the remotest uninhabited Pacific island, fills in birds’ nests, gets eaten by animals like food and haunts the deepest ocean depths plummeted by the expedition’s special scoping tool. Her conversation with Leopard helped students see the connection to pollution in and around the freshwater near their neighborhoods.

“She took it out of the Great Lakes,” said Leopard of the classes’ semester of water study. “That was huge for the kids… What’s the local problem? And how can we fix it?"

Kids were shocked in many ways about the incredible amount of plastic across the globe… They were quite amazed and horrified at how quickly pollution travels … It was extremely meaningful to see a real scientist in the actual field.”

Even though Schindel knew science captivates when students can see its connections to the place where they live, it was good to see her far-flung Galapagos experience pay off at home.

“Kids need to have connections in the outside world,” Schindel said. “When we make things more specific and not just a textbook read, that helps them to see things differently.”

This fall, Schindel continued to adapt the Galapagos project—to her own teaching work.

On a September afternoon, she and master’s students in her elementary school methods class donned masks, and collected trash along Buffalo’s Scajaquada Creek. They spent a few hours collecting 400 pieces: cigar tips, bags, fast food wrappers and cans. As the group entered findings as data into the same citizen science phone app the eXXpedition crew used—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Tracker— they were surprised by how much was plastic: About 60 percent.

Afterward one student offered the kind of insight Schindel was aiming for: She was more concerned about how garbage makes its way into the water. “When teachers see the science around them it helps them teach differently,” Schindel said.

She now knows with even greater assurance that science lessons with experiences built in, like the field work and even a video interview, help people connect with their community in new ways.

“It just drives home for me the constancy that I already knew,” said Schindel, “—the impact of experiences.”

There is power in embedding science learning in the places we live, she said. And, perhaps, potential to change the world.