Learning Barge Christened in Portsmouth

September 15, 2009

Slideshow: Musician Bob Zentz leads the christening participants in a sea chanty, and architecture associate professor Phoebe Crisman describes the Learning Barge project.

September 15, 2009 — The water of the Elizabeth River sparkled like a jewel in the sunlight Monday as a crowd gathered at Portsmouth's High Street Ferry Landing.

Dignitaries, supporters and friends had their eyes focused on a brighter jewel, though: the Learning Barge, a floating environmental wetlands classroom.

All were gathered to celebrate the christening of the 120-foot vessel, designed and built by University of Virginia faculty and students in collaboration with the nonprofit Elizabeth River Project and support from more than 50 sponsors.

The goal of the floating classroom is to teach students of all ages how to steward the river and its resources, with the goal of making it swimmable and fishable by 2020. The Elizabeth River is one of the most polluted rivers on the Chesapeake Bay.

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

Architecture School associate professor Phoebe Crisman conceived of the project in 2005 while working on an environmental cleanup project on the river.

"It has a series of learning environments," she said. "It's built on a barge, which travels from place to place along the Elizabeth, and also potentially other rivers, teaching children and the public about wetlands, about restoration and about green energy systems. The barge is completely off the grid, so we generate our own power, collect rainwater and treat that water onboard."

Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, executive director of the Elizabeth River Project, hailed the University's involvement.

"The partnership between The Elizabeth River Project as a local nonprofit and the University of Virginia, which is some distance away in the mountains – not even on this river – is a powerful statement that the University is looking beyond the ivory tower, so to speak, and seeing the needs of the state, the needs of the region and making the commitment – quite a considerable commitment – to travel to the need and invent the solution that will make a difference," she said.

From the steps for children – up to 60 at a time – to sit on and hear stories about the river, to pumping water into planters of grass wetlands to learn about ways to remove pollutants, to compost toilets and sun-powered lights, every aspect of the design was conceived with education in mind.

Gerald McCarthy, executive director of the Virginia Environmental Endowment, invited Jackson, Crisman and the Elizabeth River Project's costumed education character "Princess Elizabeth" – the British royalty for whom the river was named – to cut the ribbon and drink pure water from a "standing cup," a custom at ship christenings in the princess' day. McCarthy thanked the team of "really dedicated folks who worked to make a dream a reality" and commended the project as a model for others to follow.

U.Va. President John T. Casteen III, a Portsmouth native, told the gathering that he witnessed the degradation and destruction of the tributaries of the Elizabeth River as he played and boated on the water during his childhood.

"This progress toward finding ways to remedy the river and its creeks and its bays' maladies matters a great deal to me personally," he said. "... What we learn from Phoebe and her students, and will learn day-by-day as the barge does the work for which it was designed, is that working together we can slow, and in some cases reverse, the process of this damage.

"I want to say thank you to Phoebe. ... I think what Phoebe proves is that change requires quite often a leader who is a visionary. And she is a visionary."

As visitors toured the craft, engineering professor P. Paxton Marshall talked to small groups about the monitoring system for the barge's renewable energy systems, which incorporates sensor boards designed by his students. The collected information is displayed on a computer screen so children will be able to see all of the renewable energy systems that power the barge — photovoltaic panels, wind generators and solar thermal panels.

The U.Va. students who worked on the project took away practical experience that extends their learning beyond the classroom.

Engineering graduate student Farrad Omar, whose focus of study is solar and renewal energy, designed, fabricated and installed the electrical system – the first design that he has shepherded to reality.

He said he appreciated the opportunity to work on a collaborative project that expanded his learning beyond classrooms and textbooks to areas such as leadership.

"Working with different groups of people is tremendously important," he said.

Marshall echoed Omar's thoughts. "University education, including engineering education, tends to be theory-based, and the opportunity for this kind of experiential, hands-on, design-build opportunity is a wonderful opportunity for our students," he said. "There's a very different tradition of education in the Architecture School than in the Engineering School, and I think the opportunity for people in both disciplines to see the point of view of the others, to work in collaboration, has been invaluable for the University students."

May civil engineering graduate Whitney Newton is now a graduate planning student in the Architecture School. As an undergraduate, she helped design the solar thermal system that heats the classroom and worked on installing it this summer.

Marrying engineering and architecture means "thinking about the way people behave and what they want to get out of their environment with the planning side, and on the engineering side, it might be more focused on the infrastructure, the physical built environment," she said.

Dharma Goradia, who graduated from the Architecture School in May, worked on constructing various parts of the barge during her final semesters and over the summer.

"It's been unbelievable to see the reality of something being built and the challenges that come along with putting materials together and fulfilling all the needs of the architect and the client," she said. "It has given me a different perspective on what it means to be a good designer."

Architecture School Dean Kim Tanzer called the Learning Barge a "national model" for its collaboration between the Architecture and Engineering schools, as well as its partnerships with public and private entities outside the University.

"It's really an exemplar that we want to model in as many ways as we can," she said.

As of Monday, the Learning Barge ownership was turned over to the Elizabeth River Project, which will operate it for up to two field-trip sessions a day at various locations along the river. Voyages will begin Oct. 1 and are already filling up.

On weekends. The barge will host programs for the public, including professional organizations, master gardeners, architecture groups and others.

— By Jane Ford