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Tracking ocean voyage opens up new world of learning for Calgary students

May 5, 2015 Sandra Bit, ATA News Staff

Grade 6 students at a Calgary school had no idea what they were embarking on when they started tracking the month-long maiden voyage of a Canadian Coast Guard vessel.

Students from Captain Nichola Goddard School took an interest when they learned that a ship had been named after their school’s namesake.

Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first Canadian female soldier ever killed in combat, died in Afghanistan in 2006. The CCGS Captain Goddard M.S.M. was the last of nine “hero class” mid-shore patrol vessels built for the coast guard and named after Canadians who lost their lives while serving their country. Built by Irving Shipbuilding in Halifax, the 43-metre ship set sail for its maiden voyage on Jan. 20, bound for a port in Victoria, B.C., via the Panama Canal.

The school project began with students simply reading the Twitter posts of the ship’s captain and crew but evolved into an interactive research and communications project. After students began emailing questions to the ship’s captain once a week through a coast guard communications officer, they were delighted when not just the captain but various crew members started personally replying to their many inquiries, providing valuable insights into day-to-day life on a working coast guard vessel and the roles and responsibilities of her crew.

“At an age when kids are starting to lose their curiosity and interest in the world, this experience really sparked their interest in learning,” said learning leader Jeff Belcher.

Students used information gleaned from their communications to create their own learning experience, complete with research articles, maps, videos and blog posts. One student took on the role of plotting the ship’s co-ordinates on a world map to track its location throughout its entire journey.

Female students were especially interested in the perspective and experiences of the crew’s lone female member, a lead deckhand and rescue specialist. They were empowered by her presence on the ship, which expanded their idea of women in the workplace, Belcher said.

 “At first their questions were stereotypical (how do you handle not going to the shopping mall, not watching ‘girl’ movies). But as they spoke to her, their questions got more specific and thoughtful,” he said.

The entire Grade 6 class became increasingly engaged as each student became responsible for researching different aspects of the project. Subjects investigated included marine wildlife, the backgrounds of the heroic Canadians after whom the coast guard vessels were named the history and workings of the Panama Canal and the duties and personal backgrounds of the ship’s individual crew members.

Aside from corresponding with the crew, students conducted Internet research, organized materials on display boards and created timelines using PowerPoint.

“Taking part in an authentic, real-life experience empowered them to be more curious and served to better equip them with all sorts of skills, from the math skills involved in plotting ship co-ordinates to the research and writing skills needed to produce crew profiles. The curriculum was applied in the real world, and that made it more relevant to them,” said Grade 6 teacher Lindsay Gorday.

Belcher feels the project also dovetailed with other aspects of students’ lives. “Our school has been honing in on the philosophy of legacies and the stories behind things; courage and perseverance and excellence and integrity, a lot of work around the school’s namesake — who she was and what she did and why the school was named after her. How does that connect with the ship being named after her?”

Both Gorday and Belcher feel the project was a reminder of where learning can lead and achieving a balance between having a curriculum and making it meaningful, especially in Grade 6, where there is extra pressure from provincial achievement tests.

“This was teachers being risktakers. There was no roadmap, no opportunity to design the process. The big idea was there and they let it unfold and acted as directors and facilitators — no prescribing,” they said.

“The students were in charge of their own learning. Sometimes the richest experiences are the ones you take on as they come up.”

More detailed information about the project is available on the students’ blog at

In a video documenting the project, student Reed McRae explains how he tracked and plotted the co-ordinates of the CCGS Captain Goddard M.S.M. during its voyage.

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