Phoebe Crisman Tom Cogill

Late next year, the University will launch a floating environmental classroom on the Elizabeth River, one of the nation’s most polluted waterways. Dubbed the Learning Barge, it will be anchored at various points along the river and will teach schoolchildren how the river was polluted and what needs to be done to clean it up.

The river was poisoned years ago by creosote operations that rot-proofed lumber for uses such as telephone poles, and it continues to suffer from storm water runoff laden with agricultural and industrial chemicals. Airborne pollutants from power plants and cars also settle into the river.

The Learning Barge will allow Virginians who live in the populous Norfolk-Portsmouth-Virginia Beach area to see their damaged river firsthand. Today, access is largely blocked by industrial and military entities that own riverfront property.

“We want to give kids an opportunity to experience nature in their backyard,” says Phoebe Crisman, an associate professor of architecture and faculty adviser to students working on the project. “Right now they can’t; it’s all fenced off.”

Initially, some observers thought the Elizabeth was the wrong place to study nature. “They wondered, ‘Why would you take kids to this place?’” Crisman recalls. “I said, ‘Well, it’s the place where they live.’

“There’s a tendency to take kids out to pristine environments to study nature,” she adds. “This isn’t pristine, but it’s still part of nature. It’s just a part of nature that’s been degraded by human activity. When they see what has happened to the river, we hope they will understand the connection between the way they live their lives and what’s happened to this river.

“You can clean up the river by removing the sludge from the bottom, but you won’t be able to keep it clean unless you clean up power plant emissions, auto exhaust and storm water runoff polluted with agricultural and industrial chemicals. So while we’re cleaning up historical contamination, at the same time we’re polluting it over again. With this project, we’re trying to get people to understand this.”

The use of alternative energy technologies offers one way to curtail future damage to the Elizabeth. The Learning Barge will be a floating demonstration of those technologies. Power will come from photovoltaic panels and wind generation. The barge’s classroom will be warmed by a sun-driven radiant heating system. It won’t be air-conditioned; heat shields will be used to cool it in summer.

Efforts to clean up the river began more than a dozen years ago with the formation of the Elizabeth River Project, a citizens’ initiative to deal with the river’s long-term environmental issues. The Elizabeth River Project will eventually own and operate the barge and will hire a full-time teacher to staff its classroom.

In the meantime, the project is offering an environmental education for the architectural and engineering students who are building it. “We’re preparing our students to make a difference,” says faculty adviser Paxton Marshall, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We’re teaching them not only about the challenge of environmental problems, but we’re also teaching them how to design systems to address these problems.”

So far, the design challenge has earned the student team high marks. In April, they won the EPA’s prestigious People, Prosperity and the Planet Award in the National Sustainable Design Expo.

The Learning Barge

Designing any structure requires the smooth interaction of designers and engineers. UVA’s architectural and engineering students discovered the difficulties of collaboration firsthand as they designed and built the Learning Barge, and that’s a lesson that faculty would like to see repeated. “In classes, we focus on individual pieces of a problem,” says Paxton Marshall, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “It’s too seldom that students get to learn the give-and-take required to reach a solution that works for everyone. The Learning Barge project does that.”

The students were involved in everything from the design of cabinets to the barge’s water and energy systems. Each component had to fit within a unified whole. The job of coordinating these efforts fell to Adam Donovan (Arch ’01, ’07), who served as liaison between student architects and student engineers.

“I learned how an idea is transferred to the physical realm,” he says. “And I learned that things don’t always work the way you conceive them, and that they have to be modified. My role was to make sure people were designing creatively, but also to make sure their solutions worked well as a whole.”