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An Explorers Festival Conversation with Shah Selbe and Joe Grabowski

The theme of this year’s National Geographic Explorers Festival was “Connecting to Ignite Change.” This theme was present in all the panels, activities, and conversations that were had on stage, as well as in the energy of the party, film festival, and awards. But what happens after Explorers Festival wraps up? What kinds of projects...

The theme of this year’s National Geographic Explorers Festival was “Connecting to Ignite Change.” This theme was present in all the panels, activities, and conversations that were had on stage, as well as in the energy of the party, film festival, and awards. But what happens after Explorers Festival wraps up? What kinds of projects can come out of this event? All it takes is a conversation with many of the explorers and educators that attend Explorers Festival to understand the connection and collaboration that Festival inspires. The relationship between Joe Grabowski and Shah Selbe, both of whom are National Geographic Explorers and Fellows, is a prime example.

Shah Selbe is an engineer and conservation technologist who works with communities, NGOs, and developing countries to identify and deploy technologies that can help with their greatest conservation challenges. His projects have integrated crowdsourcing, smartphone apps, drones, satellite data, and sensors to address such conservation issues as illegal poaching and the monitoring of protected areas. He founded a conservation technology makerspace and prototyping lab, Conservify, which uses open source technology to empower local communities to change our planet’s future. Selbe was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer in 2013.

Joe Grabowski is an educator working to bring science, exploration, adventure, and conservation into classrooms across North America through virtual speakers and field trips. He is using technology to open the most remote corners of the planet to classrooms. Currently, Grabowski teaches science and math in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. He is also the founder of a nonprofit called Exploring by the Seat of Your Pants, which, since 2015, has hosted more than 200 Google Hangouts with leading scientists and explorers from around the world, connecting them with tens of thousands of students. Grabowski was selected in 2016 as a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow and in 2017 he was named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

Over the past several years, Shah has been able to bring his work into classrooms across North America through Joe’s Exploring by the Seat of your Pants Google Hangouts, inspiring a new generation of explorers and highlighting what can happen when innovative leaders connect.

We caught up with them during Explorers Festival to get updates on their work together and where they’re going next.

NGS: For those who don’t know, how did you two start your collaboration?

Shah: So, Joe reached out to me originally. He was doing these amazing [Explorer] Classrooms with scientists and explorers all over the world using this Hangout tool. And it was something that I’ve always been very passionate about. Especially STEM education. And so when Joe asked me, I just immediately was open to it. And I think, I don’t know, I’m probably up there in terms of the number that I’ve done compared to any other explorer.

Joe: You’ve done a lot! And from that first Hangout you’re still the face of Exploring By The Seat of Your Pants on many of our channels. We’ve got the kids watching and Shah doing his thing.

Shah: Yeah, in the last one that we did, I gave a little bit of a talk about the work that we do in conservation technology. And then I walked around and did a tour of the lab where we build the drones and the sensors and all sorts of stuff that we take out on an expedition.

Joe: He just did a great one. He brought one of our textbook-size satellite units to the Republic of Congo and used the satellite to broadcast right into classrooms, which was pretty wild.

Shah: We were in Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Republic of Congo and we were doing a lot of work with drones to map some of that area and we were also doing camera trap work. And the Zoological Society of London was also there alongside us and we did this hang out and I showed the drone, I showed some camera traps that were like in the middle of the rain forest as we did it, so it was really cool.

NGS: How are the kids reacting to these immersive experiences on the Hangouts?

Joe: Oh the kids love it. I mean when I first reached out to Shah I read what he did, I saw he was an [National Geographic] Emerging Explorer. And I’m not going to lie, I was inspired and impressed. And I mean, when I find people like that, I have to share them with my classroom because it’s too good not to and who knows where the next conservation technologist is going to be in a classroom.

Shah: And I think my favorite part of participating in these Hangouts is the questions, you know, we get into this Q and A section at the end and it’s just, it’s always so much fun! And the kids always ask the most amazing things. You know, stuff that I haven’t even thought about. And you step back, you get so busy in your daily job and building things and traveling and doing all this stuff that sometimes you get this really amazing refreshing question from a child. That it either reminds you why you do the work that you do, or it brings you back to re-evaluate.

And the amazing thing is that kids nowadays understand technology; it’s such a part of their life you know. So when we talk to them and explain, like, we take that same technology that you guys see on a daily basis, but we’re using it to save elephants or you know track whales or to protect rainforests, they get they get very excited… in a way that that maybe wouldn’t have connected with the students ten years ago or 20 years ago.

Joe: And I always say this, and the explorers and the scientists echo this all the time, is they can all remember a time they met someone, saw a documentary, read an article, and it flipped the switch for them. It turned something on, set them in a different direction, led them to the spot that they are today. So that’s kind of the point of these events is try to spark these little “aha” moments in classrooms all over the place.

Shah: A lot of times they ask, or the teachers that are involved will ask: what can we do next about it? And it’s also a nice thing to remind them. That their choices everyday matter, the things they eat, the stuff their parents buy. All that stuff matters in making sure that the planet has a future.

Joe: With a lot of the stuff that Shah works with and designs, they’re low-cost solutions, things that students can get their hands on and start experimenting themselves if they want to. And if they’re starting that young just imagine what they’re going to be able to do with that technology when they get a bit older.

More information about the National Geographic Explorers Festival is available here.

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