Click Here to Play Audio

On a sunny and chilly morning this week, a swarm of third graders tramped down the dock behind Norfolk’s Grandy Village Learning Center.

Dozens of students from B.C. Charles Elementary School traveled from Newport News to climb aboard a “floating classroom” along the Elizabeth River. 

BCcharlesstudents sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner

Students from B.C. Charles Elementary School on the Learning Barge docked in the Elizabeth River.

That’s what the Elizabeth River Project calls its Learning Barge, a 120–by-32-foot steel-deck vessel designed to engage students with nature.

“Welcome aboard America’s greenest vessel,” said Robin Dunbar, the nonprofit’s deputy education director.

The barge was built for $1.6 million almost 15 years ago, she said. It includes an indoor classroom with glass windows showcasing the river, and a shallow demonstration pool containing live wetlands.  

“We wanted the youth within the watershed to be able to come aboard and connect to their home river,” Dunbar said.

classroom sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

Elizabeth River history is written across windows at the indoor classroom on the Learning Barge.

More than 100,000 students have attended classes on the barge since its launch in 2009. It’s now often booked with school field trips and summer camps about a year in advance.

Once on board, the B.C. Charles students this week were divided into groups that rotated between topics like plastics pollution and wildlife predators and prey.

They heard about the river’s history, including its role in the Underground Railroad allowing enslaved people to escape to freedom.

With seasonal educator Abbey Marquadt, they learned about how to measure water quality and why the river contains a mix of salty and fresh water. 

“Can you say, ‘brackish water?’” Marquardt asked, prompting a chorus of responses.

student sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner

Newport News third-graders learn about water quality aboard the Elizabeth River Project's Learning Barge.

Watermen with Chesapeake seafood market Wicker’s Crabpot parked on the side of the barge showed the kids fresh menhaden and crabs. The students also got to hold periwinkle snails and touch marine creatures and plants in a series of tubs. 

“It’s good but it feels weird,” one third-grader remarked, moving his hand over a rock covered in algae.

creatures sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

Marine creatures aboard the Learning Barge.

Shannon Yerabek, the barge’s education manager, said it’s rewarding to see students’ eyes light up as soon as they’re on board.

“I never realized it was a luxury,” Yerabek said. “Hearing about how these students that live so close to the river are not able to do that or don’t have the access, but they’re excited to learn. It is really heart-warming for me.”

The Elizabeth River Project recently received a $750,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to provide hands-on environmental education for fourth-grade students in Portsmouth. That will include taking kids aboard the barge and partnering with local universities to conduct field investigations related to sea level rise and green infrastructure.