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The Learning Barge, First Floating Wetland Classroom, Set for Sept. 14 Christening

September 4, 2009 — The Learning Barge, the world's first floating wetland classroom, will be christened Sept. 14 at 11 a.m. at the High Street Ferry Landing in downtown Portsmouth.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story:

The 120-foot barge – a joint project of the University of Virginia, which designed and built it, and the non-profit Elizabeth River Project, which will operate it – will traverse the Elizabeth River to teach all ages how to make the Elizabeth River "swimmable and fishable" by 2020, the new goal of the Elizabeth River Project.

The design by U.Va.'s School of Architecture has won a series of national awards. A live wetland on a steel barge symbolizes this community's commitment to reclaim the Elizabeth River as not only a major port, but also a healthy ecosystem. Currently the river is one of the most polluted on the Chesapeake Bay.

Speakers at the christening will include U.Va. President John T. Casteen III; retired U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Col. Joseph J. Thomas, president of the Elizabeth River Project's Board of Directors; and Paul D. Koonce, chief executive officer of Dominion Virginia Power.

Dominion Virginia Power will announce a lead gift of $375,000 toward the $1.3 million total cost of the custom-designed barge and two years of educational programming. The Lowe's store in Charlottesville worked closely with The Elizabeth River Project to secure materials, and the Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation funded an enclosed, on-board classroom laboratory with a gift of $125,000, while the Virginia Environmental Endowment funded initial project research. With these gifts, initial budget needs are met for The Elizabeth River Project to begin student field trips to the barge later in September, although fundraising continues to help schools pay for transportation and other ongoing needs.

"The Learning Barge is our most powerful education tool yet for enlisting students and citizens to restore our home river," Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of the Elizabeth River Project, said.

Often described as an initiative "by students for students," the Learning Barge not only was designed by U.Va., but the classroom and "green" power systems were also constructed by U.Va. students over the last three years – winning them a $75,000 cash award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in a 2007 sustainability competition.

Phoebe Crisman, the U.Va. associate professor of architecture who led the interdisciplinary team of students and community partners to design and fabricate the Learning Barge, was awarded the Education Honor Award of the American Institute of Architects in 2008. The U.Va. School of Architecture collaborated with the University's School of Engineering and Applied Science to power the Learning Barge solely by sun and wind, just one of its design elements geared to foster environmental responsibility.

"The Learning Barge is just one of many sustainability initiatives at U.Va.," Casteen said. "As a Tidewater native who grew up between two of the Elizabeth River's damaged tributary creeks, I have been deeply alarmed about environmental deterioration there – a zone that must have been one of our nation's most beautiful and productive regions until well into the 19th century.

"In our sustainability efforts at the University of Virginia, we have looked to our faculty and students to create remedies to such environmental damage. The Learning Barge is the result of a collaborative student-faculty venture that allowed for extraordinary student participation and creativity. I am grateful to all those who contributed to the research, design and hands-on work over the past three years. Their work will go a long way to saving the Elizabeth River – and to teaching others of the need for ongoing good stewardship of our state's natural resources."

The Elizabeth River Project, meanwhile, has worked with Norfolk, Portsmouth, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach school systems, which border the Elizabeth River, to develop learning activities that meet Virginia Standards of Learning. Civic groups also will be invited to explore the six "learning stations" aboard. The barge can host up to 150 people at a time.

➢ At the wetland nursery, visitors can pump polluted river aboard, then test the water to discover if it is cleaner after filtering by the wetland grasses.
➢ An observation pool will bring river creatures up close, while the classroom lab will include testing of bacteria, oxygen and nutrient levels where the barge is stationed, to compare with conditions safe for swimming and fishing.
➢ Visits will conclude with how other cultures celebrate rivers, and the chance to help create public "river art."

"This project is an outstanding example of Dominion's commitment to environmental stewardship," said William C. Hall Jr., a vice president of Dominion and president of the company's foundation. "Not only will current students and future generations learn the value of a healthy ecosystem, they will actually participate in the ongoing restoration of the Elizabeth River. We are pleased to be a part of the Learning Barge."

"Through the Lowe's River Lab, we hope to encourage students to learn about sustainability and environmental efforts through hands-on learning opportunities," said Larry D. Stone, chairman of the Lowe's Charitable and Educational Foundation. "As part of Lowe's continued commitment to education and sustainability, we're providing teachers in the communities we serve with a great new tool to teach students science in a way that can enhance their love of learning."

Schools and civic groups can book a visit to the Learning Barge by calling Robin Dunbar of The Elizabeth River Project at 757-399-7487, or by visiting The Elizabeth River Project Web site [link to: www.elizabethriver.org].

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Media - For more information, please contact:

• About Learning Barge education programming: Robin Dunbar or Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, The Elizabeth River Project, 757-399-7487.
• About the U.Va. design: Jane Ford, 434-924-4298, or Phoebe Crisman, 434-924-1006 (office) and 434-466-3301 (cell).
• About Dominion Virginia Power sponsorship: Chuck Penn, 757-857-2367.
• About Lowe's: Karen Cobb, 704-758-3504.

PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: Officiating at the christening will be the costumed education character, "Princess Elizabeth," who visits schools for The Elizabeth River Project as the historic British royal for whom the river was named. Area students will flank her. The private ceremony for sponsors and partners is from 11 to 11:30 a.m. at High and Water streets in Portsmouth, followed by VIP tours from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (The barge will first open to the public at RIVERFest, a fundraising gala of The Elizabeth River Project, on Oct. 10 at 6 p.m. Tickets to that event are available at www.elizabethriver.org.

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