Darwin's footsteps: Galapagos Islands expedition dream come true for Winnipeg teacher

Not many people have been able to follow the footsteps of Charles Darwin, the naturalist and geologist behind the theory of evolution by natural selection, but a Winnipeg teacher will become one of the few.

Louis Riel School Division teacher Mike Johnston has become the first Manitoba educator to be named a National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow, which will send him on a global expedition to the Galapagos Islands.

"I get to go and literally be in those footsteps and take in the world as [Darwin] sort of saw it, be in the whole Darwinian idea of what was he looking at that made him think in a different way, on a path that a lot of scientists sort of follow very diligently now," Johnston said.

The Galapagos are an isolated group of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean with a fragile ecosystem, unique biodiversity and history to science which has made them legendary.

In the 1830s, Darwin travelled to the islands where his observations later led to the inception of his theory of evolution.

"It's kind of the holy grail for nerdy science people," Johnston said with a laugh.

For the Winnipeg science and drama teacher, the journey will be more than walking the same path as the scientific wonder, it will be about bringing it home to his students.

"I'm going out as the messenger of my community and going to bring the experience back to them as widely and as thoroughly as I can," Johnston said. "[My students] are excited for that because of us doing it together."

Johnston recently traveled to the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., where there were workshops around the science he will be exploring but also cool new ways to share those lessons with his students in Winnipeg.

Johnston is also a national-level champion slam poet and is excited to bring the experience into a multi-media poetry platform as well.

It's important for students to see that science is in their grasps by seeing their teacher take part in scientific exploration, Johnston said.

"This is a huge opportunity for me to be able to literally jump on a boat and say science is as big as the world if you want it to be," he said.

"Adventure is synonymous with science and discovery… [Science careers] are achievable if you are passionate enough to go out there and see the world and ask questions about what's going on in the world and find your place in it."

Thirty-five people were chosen as fellows and only two were Canadian. Johnston leaves on the 12-day expedition in September then will work with the fellowship to explore the experience in different ways locally.