Floating Classroom is a Hit With Students
Alison Harper-Kirsch summed up her visit to the Elizabeth River Project’s Learning Barge one April 2010 morning in one word: “Awesome.”
“Many animals that I care about are here,” explained the 8-year-old Chesapeake Bay Academy student who was visiting the barge while it was parked in the waters at Deep Creek Lock Park in Chesapeake.
“Awesome” has been the universal description ever since the innovative floating classroom opened for business in October 2009. With help from the Elizabeth River Project staff, the barge is building a reputation for making learning about water quality and environmental practices go down like games.
The one-of-a-kind barge, powered entirely by sun and wind, was designed by students and faculty at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture and already has received three top awards in academic architecture. A $24,000 grant from the Hampton Roads Community Foundation helped cover the cost of the steel hull on this 120-by-32 foot vessel.
During the barge’s first two months on the river last fall, teachers and students from school districts throughout Hampton Roads gushed about their experience. On feedback forms they routinely scored their experience beyond a perfect 10. Even before the barge got back to work this spring after a winter in dry dock, every educational session was booked. In addition to the 50 schools that brought 4,500 students aboard this spring, the Elizabeth River Project is offering adult and family education opportunities this summer when the barge is docked on the Lafayette River in Norfolk.
Dana Bender, lower school director at Chesapeake Bay Academy, watched in admiration as 26 students from kindergarten through fifth grade moved spellbound from one barge station to another. Hands-on lessons like those used on the barge are important, she said, because the Virginia Beach school specializes in students with learning challenges.
At the bow one instructor pulled up a wire trap, revealing a flurry of flapping fish, then used it to talk about water quality at Deep Creek Lock Park, where the barge was moored. Although the vessel has no motor, it is towed to different locations, providing an ever-changing opportunity to educate.
In the center of the deck, Robin Dunbar of the Elizabeth River Project uses plants growing in containers to explain how these wetlands-area plants clean river water and help much of the area’s wildlife thrive. In an enclosed classroom, another group took on the roles of oxygen, algae and bacteria to learn why excess lawn fertilizer can be lethal to area waters. At an art station several students drew wild impressions of what they had seen. Nearby other groups visited learning stations to focus on the benefits of solar panels and composting toilets.
But when you’re 8 years old, nothing is as fascinating as a discussion about dog droppings. The stern is this vessel’s poop deck. Here, students are taught how to use a plastic bag to “scoop the poop” and clean behind pets to keep deadly bacteria out of the watershed. The Elizabeth River Project believes that these youngsters, appointed river stewards upon their barge graduation, will be key to reaching its goal of making the formerly polluted Elizabeth River safe for swimming and fishing by 2020.
Nolan Davidson, 8, who has a big dog named Gravy, got the message. “It’s great because we’re learning cool things. I did not know that we should pick up 10,000 dog poops.”
Learn more at www.elizabethriver.org