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Chesapeake Bay News

Dec
07
2015

Photo Essay: Climbing aboard the Learning Barge

Elizabeth River Project educator Ashley Shepard, left, supplies fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., with plastic bottle "fish" to grab after learning how herons hunt for prey on the Learning Barge, docked at Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk on Oct. 23, 2015. The barge features six learning stations and claims to be the world’s first floating classroom.

On a fall morning, a lot is happening on the 120-by-32-foot steel deck of the Elizabeth River Project’s Dominion Virginia Power Learning Barge. A stream of fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School follows Robin Dunbar, the Elizabeth River Project’s deputy director of education, onto the vessel via a narrow boardwalk at the Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk, Virginia. After splitting into groups, they measure oyster shells, they listen to osprey calls, they find periwinkles in the wetland observation pool and they make traditional mud art in a small classroom onboard. With solar panels above their heads, and captured rainwater below their feet, students on the Learning Barge get excited about their local river—and how they can impact it—in a space that is smaller than a basketball court.

Students pull up buckets of water from the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River before measuring water quality on the Learning Barge.

The Learning Barge launched in 2009 and has seen almost 60,000 students—about 10,000 a year—according to Dunbar. She floats from group to group as staff guide lessons on how to build a nest like an osprey or how to use buckets to collect water samples.

“All this was going to be a big wetland,” Dunbar says, standing on the partially-covered deck, which was designed by the University of Virginia School of Architecture and is organized into six indoor and outdoor learning stations for the barge’s 2015-2016 fall and spring programs. “I had a different idea and worked with U.Va. to turn it into a classroom.”

Teacher Marquita Fulford, right, leads a lesson that touches on oyster history in the Chesapeake Bay and their ability to filter water.

Before there was a barge to build on, the Elizabeth River Project had to grapple with the financial realities of owning and operating such a sizable vessel.

“The [Elizabeth River Project’s] board was very concerned about maintenance in the beginning,” says Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of ERP. “But the ship repair community, and the tug boats—the maritime community—has adopted the barge.”

It takes about $200,000 a year to operate the Learning Barge, but the cost would be significantly higher without all of the volunteers involved. For example, Jackson says the Elizabeth River Project has never paid for transporting the barge, which is not self-propelled. Last summer, Colonna’s Shipyard donated a paint job for the hull—a value of $40,000. And every winter, BAE Industries takes the barge into their shipyard and asks what projects need to be done.

Elizabeth River Project educator Wes Cheney, seated, leads a song during a lesson about traditional African Mali mud art.

Paint dries on recycled cloth that fourth graders from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., turned into artwork based on African Mali mud art on the Learning Barge.

The sum of the Learning Barge’s parts, which are powered entirely by solar and wind power captured onboard, contribute to a meaningful watershed educational experience for students in the Norfolk area—including several low-income school districts—who may have never really spent time on a river despite living so close to one.

“It’s all science but it touches on different grade levels and they’re able to go back to the schoolhouse and apply some of that to what they’re learning the classroom,” says Marquita Fulford, standing at the Chesapeake Gold station, where students trace and measure oysters. A second-grade teacher at Camp Young in Norfolk, Fulford is in her third year working with students on the Learning Barge.

“Hands on activities, they love those,” Fulford says. “And they remember them—more so than somebody just talking to you.”

Students get answers to questions about blue crabs at the Tidal Moon River station on the Learning Barge. Learning stations on the barge featured science lessons on topics such as water quality and wildlife.

A fourth grade student from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., absorbs a lesson on oysters on the Learning Barge.

Students emulate osprey nests with sticks at the Shore Savers learning station on the Learning Barge.

A wind turbine provides power to the Learning Barge while evacuated tubes absorb solar energy that heats water on the barge. The Learning Barge is dubbed "America's Greenest Vessel" by the Elizabeth River Project, which owns and operates it, and other sustainable features include 1,600 watts of solar panels, 1,200 gallons of rainwater collection, and composting toilets.

Elizabeth River Project educator April Orleans, right, hoists up a crab pot holding a blue crab at the Tidal Moon River learning station aboard the Learning Barge.

A fourth grade student from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., holds a periwinkle plucked from the 16-by-16-foot wetland observation pool on the Learning Barge. The Learning Barge is home to various freshwater and saltwater species.

The Learning Barge hosts fourth grade students from Granby Elementary School in Norfolk, Va., while docked at Grandy Village Learning Center in Norfolk on Oct. 23, 2015. The million-dollar Learning Barge will be moved to Elizabeth River Landing Park in Chesapeake, Va., for programs running from April to June 2016.
 

To view more photos, visit the Chesapeake Bay Program’s Flickr page

Photos and Text by Will Parson

author
About Will Parson - Will is the Multimedia Specialist for the Chesapeake Bay Program. A native of Bakersfield, California, he acquired an interest in photojournalism while studying ecology and evolution at University of California, San Diego. He pursued stories about water and culture as a graduate student at Ohio University's School of Visual Communication, and as an intern at several newspapers in New England before landing in Maryland.


Comments:

Comment

Marjorie Jackson says:
December 09, 2015

WOWWWW WILL - FABULOUS!!! Thank you for such a beautiful essay about our Learning Barge. We want all the pictures please - best ever!!!



Comment

Karen Jones Squires says:
December 11, 2015

These are beautiful photos of the barge and the children who visited it. Their looks of intense interest and concentration say it all: Hands-on learning is meaningful and effective. Thank you for sharing this story!



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