Like most teachers, Bonnie Keller is busy writing lesson plans in the waning days of students’ summer vacation.

But the Lanier Middle School educator won’t teach those early lessons, and her rush isn’t solely motivated by needing to be ready for the first day.

Once the lesson plans are done — and ready for a substitute who will deliver them during the first week — Lanier can finish getting ready for a journey that’s worthy of skipping school.

Keller is trading the excitement of the first week back for an opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream — and to be able to share what she learns with her students.

“Since I was 6 years old, I’ve wanted to follow in the footsteps of Capt. [Jacques] Cousteau. . . . I wanted to be the girl version of him,” Keller said.

She will get her chance to explore when she boards the Nautilus on Saturday as one of the exploration vessel’s “Educators at Sea.”

Keller and fellow Fairfax County teacher Jason Pittman of Hollin Meadows Elementary School are participating in the program, which is funded by the Ocean Exploration Trust. Under the program, the Nautilus is hosting 12 teachers, who will rotate their time aboard, this summer as part of its 2012 expedition. During July and August, the expedition is traveling the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas to map the geological, biological, archaeological and chemical traits of these depths.

Keller and Pittman applied and were accepted for the program during this past school year.

“What I’m hoping to get out of this is a better understanding of the scientific process when you’re doing field research,” Keller said. “The experience of being on the ship, getting to work with world-class scientists who are the top in their fields . . . it’s exciting.”

Candidates were chosen from Fairfax County; Frederick County, Md.; Glendale, Ariz.; Richland, Wash.; Houston; Knox County and Oak Ridge, Tenn; and San Francisco. The application process included a general information application, essays on the candidate’s interests in the expedition and interviews with a selection panel from the Ocean Exploration Trust.

While aboard the Nautilus, Keller and Pittman will serve as sort of ambassadors, who will share what is going on aboard the ship with the outside world, especially students.

Educators will conduct interviews with scientists and crew members, write blogs about their time aboard, post webcasts and answer students’ questions.

“It’s very, very busy,” said Amy O’Neal, director of Educators at Sea. “Each educator will stand a four-hour watch with a watch team. . . . During that time, they are actually updating the Web site. They will be responsible for posting updates, fielding the questions. They will also be adding content for the Web site.”

The Educators At Sea program began in 2010. Educators usually spend 10 to 15 days on the Nautilus, with two or more educators on board the ship at a time.

“It really goes back to the philosophy of Dr. Robert Ballard,” an explorer best known for his discovery of the wrecked RMS Titanic in 1985, O’Neal said. Ballard leads the exploration missions of the Nautilus.

He “has this philosophy that exploration should be shared with the world,” she said. “Tele-presence is a huge part of Dr. Ballard’s vision.”

Ballard also famously discovered the wreckage of the German battleship Bismarck in 1989 and the USS Yorktown in 1998.

Having the educators on board, O’Neal said, is a way to share exploration with the next generation.

“There are really only two exploration vessels in the world. There’s ours and the Okeanos Explorer,” which is supported through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, O’Neal said. “The rest are mostly research vessels.”

Because of that limitation, educators are important in sharing the message and getting students excited about their world, she said.

For Pittman, the trip offers him a second chance on the Nautilus. Pittman was aboard the exploration vessel last summer as part of the Jason Project, which also was started by Ballard and is a middle school science, technology, engineering and math program geared at opening new curriculum ideas to teachers and students by connecting them with field professionals and experts.

“Last time, I was featured in an educational DVD with National Geographic. I was more of a passenger” filming and documenting, Pittman said. “It was incredible. I never did learn to sleep. There was always something going on. I would stay up all night.

“What I’m looking forward to now is really being a part of the crew and helping them share the message with the world.”

Students can log on to the Nautilus’ Web site,, to catch Pittman and Keller in action and interact with the teachers while they are on board.

“This is first and foremost for me an experience I can bring back to my students,” Pittman said. “Dr. Ballard is really the last explorer. He has such a track record of exploring new things. . . . These discoveries are really exciting. . . . I can’t wait.”