The Learning Barge

Elizabeth River Project and the University of Virginia

Leveraging Community Support and a Common Agenda

Started in 1991 with a small grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE), the Elizabeth River Project is an excellent example of how community interests can be leveraged around a common agenda to change the way an environmental resource is viewed and treated.  In one of its more recent ventures, VEE grants helped the Elizabeth River Project (ERP) join forces with the University of Learning BargeVirginia (UVA) School of Architecture and other partners to design a new kind of learning environment.  The ERP-UVA collaboration resulted in the development of a first-of-its-kind “Learning Barge” or floating classroom that has served students and teachers from throughout Hampton Roads and attracted interest from foreign visitors as well.

The Leaning Barge is a solar-powered 120 by 32 foot environmental laboratory that was constructed in 2009.  It provides meaningful K-12 and public education in the local community.  Most local school children and adults have little opportunity to experience the river firsthand, especially to go out on the water, conduct field experiments like water quality monitoring, and to learn by observation and analysis about the river ecology. Unlike nature centers located in more pristine land environments, the Learning Barge traverses an important urban river where the often complex relationship between human settlement and work and the natural world is jarringly visible.  The barge is able to visit and stop at ongoing restoration sites along the Elizabeth for a few weeks or months at a time.  The barge itself is also an exemplary prototype, harnessing energy from the sun and wind, filtering rainwater and grey-water in a contained bed wetland and recycling a variety of materials.

Through a comprehensive multi-sector partnership, the Learning Barge has been a tremendous success.  Between 2009 and 2013, the Barge had over 17,000 students visit for both field trips and summer camps.  It also provided access and education to 11,000 other visitors, adding up to nearly 30,000 visitors.  Educational programs are completely booked each season, clearly illustrating its high demand, with teachers making reservations a year in advance.  The Barge has received numerous awards for sustainable design and environmental education. The Learning Barge contributes to the mission of the Elizabeth River Project by teaching individuals how they can help make the Elizabeth River swimmable and fishable by 2020.

For more information, please contact:

The Elizabeth River Project
475 Water Street, C103A
Portsmouth, VA 23704