Teachers Take the Plunge for Science

By Bruce Paton

In October 2015 six Australian school teachers spent a week sailing and snorkelling in Queensland’s Moreton Bay in order to give their students a new perspective on the impact human development is having on our environment. The teachers were participants in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, assisting scientists in studying the effects of urbanisation in Brisbane, Australia on the marine ecosystems of Moreton Bay. Their students shared the experience through Skype calls, video blogs, and daily posts on Earthwatch Australia’s TeachLive website.

Bruce Paton is the program manager for TeachLive and he shares his experience of the latest expedition.


Team heading out on the speed boat to take seagrass samples.

“Timmy, sit.”

“Shona, I know you’re interested, but you need to stay still and quiet or nobody else will be able to hear what I have to say.”

“Class, everyone wave at Miss McKinley!”*

These are the types of things we heard during a Skype call between teacher Megan McKinley, who was participating in Earthwatch’s Sailing for Seagrass expedition, and her class at Rowville Primary School. I couldn’t help thinking that these were not the sort of things you’d normally hear on a scientific research expedition. Then again, this expedition was not exactly standard.

The reason for Megan’s unusual conversation was that she was participating in the TeachLive program, where teachers assist scientists to research the impact people are having on the environment while using online tools to share this experience with their students.


Megan identifying seagrass through a camera.

Through citizen science programs, Earthwatch helps to transform people’s views of science and nature. One of the reasons that I’m particularly fond of TeachLive is that the amazing teachers who take part spread this transformation far further than we ever could.

Every night, after a hard day of volunteering, the teachers jumped onto their laptops and updated their blogs to be read by students back at their school. They also held Skype video calls where they connected directly with their classrooms, created videos, made maps, and generally involved their students in the expedition in a way that made it feel like we had hundreds of participants rather than just six.

IMG_1127The program helped to open students’ eyes to the connections between people and the environment. It can be a revelation for students to realise that the biggest threat faced by the seagrass beds – which provide vital habitat for dugongs, turtles, and other marine life – is from sediment and other pollution washed into the bay from suburbs located miles from the ocean.

Healthy Waterways, the local NGO that Earthwatch has partnered with for the Sailing for Seagrass expedition, is using the data collected by the teachers and other Earthwatch citizen scientists to create ‘report cards’ for each local government area in southeast Queensland. These report cards detail not only the condition of the municipality’s waterways and the marine ecosystems downstream, but also the threats faced by these ecosystems and the actions that government and the community are taking to address them.

The final reason I love TeachLive – and what really matters most in my opinion – is that it has given teachers a new suite of tools they can use to engage with their students. We reconnected a few weeks after the expedition at an Earthwatch education workshop, and I was delighted to discover that all of the teachers who participated have found ways to incorporate their new knowledge and skills into their teaching. From updating their school curriculum to monitoring their local rivers with underwater cameras, I’m confident that each of these projects will benefit their students for years to come.

TeachLive group photo 2

The six teachers who participated in the expedition were from the left: Micah Wilkins from the Mac. Robertson Girls High School and Peter Girolamo from Galen College in Wangaratta. Front: Jemma Chaplin from John Monash Science School, Tracey Gray from Port Fairy Consolidated School, and Megan McKinley from Rowville Primary School. Far right: Garrett Drago from Williamstown High School.

We have another TeachLive Sailing for Seagrass expedition coming up in October 2016 and I’m really looking forward to meeting more fantastic teachers and helping them to engage their students in geography, science and nature.

To read the teachers’ blogs or to register your interest in the 2016 TeachLive expedition, please visit: www.teachlive.org.au

To check out the latest series of Healthy Waterways report cards, please visit: http://healthywaterways.org/reportcard.

Earthwatch Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian Department of Education and Training through the strategic partnerships program. TeachLive is conducted in partnership with the Geography Teachers Association of Victoria.