Sailing off to classroom research: STEM professor heads to Galapagos for science teaching ideas

Join Alexandra Schindel's journey to the Galapagos, sailing to collect ocean plastics and data on pollution. Learn how our faculty research what they teach. Follow @alexaxela.s and @eXXpedition_ on Instagram, and #exxpedition and #UBGSE on social media.

Published February 3, 2020

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Land ho! — 2/7/20

We’ve landed in the Galápagos!

That’s Kicker Rock behind me, a unique ecosystem that is the remains of a volcanic cone. It’s home to many of the regions diverse species—blue-footed boobies and frigate birds above and sharks, turtles, and reef fish below.

Sharing more on our adventures and plastics and science research in days to come. For today: a very happy me at the helm, the boobies that served as our masthead for the final two days of our sail to the Galápagos, a most adorable sea lion pup 😍 (no touching or feeding!), and a helming blooper (getting us back on course). I swear helming while sailing is so much easier than motoring!

#exxpedition #leg6 #leg6team3 #plasticpollution
#plasticfree #oceanoptimism #uselessplastic
#womeninstem #womenwhosail #womeninscience
#thisgirlcan #likeagirl #plasticfreecoastlines
#refusesingleuse #passonplastic #pointlesspackaging
#pointlessplastics #zerowaste #galapagos

Yesterday we found 40 microplastics in just one trawl. It’s a beautiful ocean, so incredibly vast, and throw a trawl in anywhere and you will find all these microplastics, it’s just so sad.” — Alexa Schindel

The adventure begins — 1/26/20

Getting ready for plastics research sail! ⛵️ ☀️
One 30L bag can actually hold all of my clothes and gear for 12 days on sailboat in the middle of the ocean. That was my discovery after several hours of effort. I thought I’d figured it out until a few days ago when we learned we might also want to bring a mask & snorkel.

Now as I get ready to board a plane to Panama City Monday and spend the first part of my sabbatical semester sailing with @eXXpedition_ to the Galapagos (!) for 12 days and collecting data on ocean plastics and toxins, the plastic mask I’ll need to see ocean floors and fish in waters filled with plastics is one more item I’ll need to squeeze in! 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 adventure ahead.

I’m a science education professor @ubgse and one of 9 women who’ve volunteered 2 weeks of our time to study the impact of plastic and toxic pollution on the environment and human/animal health.

At a glance:
  • 12 day journey, 10 days at sea, 1000 nautical miles — Off the grid! No texting with my 12 and 16-year-olds!
  • 14 women: sailors, scientists, team leaders, and 9 citizen scientists like me
  • Track the boat’s journey (#exxpedition) and read blog posts here:

Next stop: Panama 🇵🇦

#plasticsambassadors #UBuffalo #UBGSE
#exxpedition #STEMeducation #oceanoptimists
#paradiseinperil #planetorplastic #plasticpollution
#plasticfree #oceanplastic #mec

Meet the crew and co-founder of eXXpedition

Sabbatical sail

Just as this semester started, GSE’s Alexandra Schindel left Buffalo for Panama to sail to the Galapagos to help figure out how much plastic is in the ocean — and add to her teaching about science.

“When I embed myself in deep science learning like this that’s really hands-on. It helps me to then engage in creative problem solving,” Schindel said before leaving for Panama last week.

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 volunteer crew on the women-only TravelEdge. 

In the days ahead, as the boat makes 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 will be their contribution to the boat’s larger, two-year project, which started in England last year. By 2021, the 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 Leg 6 will help her Buffalo work as she applies for grant funding to develop programs with local schools to help 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 in Las Vegas, the daughter of a pilot who went sailing as 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 here. “My heart gets filled up being on the water.”

After three years teaching science for grades seven and eight, 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 local nonprofit the 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. Young people notice trash, she said, and that can be a start for an interest in science.

“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 advance a better understanding of the plastic issue as a whole and address knowledge gaps.”

“The more we can have amazing experiences in the field and in our local environment, the more we can get our next generation of kids excited about learning science and excited about doing science.”

— Alexandra Schindel, associate professor of science education

Instagram photo collection

Following my love for oceans and this planet, I’m working on solutions to our plastics crisis. Check out this Science for the People podcast for the science behind plastics and the need to reduce single use plastics.


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Check back with us here. We plan updates as news from Alexandra Schindel ( comes our way. We expect to hear more once she docks in the Galapogos later this week.

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