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The Learning Barge

Originally appears in the Fall 2011 issue

Ask a room full of teachers in a river community to share childhood memories and you’ll likely hear whimsical stories about fishing, swimming and boating on the river. But if you presented the same question to students—would their river tales be so fond? Today, many rivers around the world boast unhealthy report cards reflecting poor water quality, threatened species, and loss of essential wetlands and other precious habitat. One could not fault students, then, if they didn’t share such sentiments about the rivers in their communities. If shown how their rivers used to be compared with how they are now, many may even turn to despair.

But what if we could help restore our rivers, while giving children hope and showing them that all is not lost? And what if, by doing so, we could begin to teach students how to become river custodians themselves? The Elizabeth River Project, our river restoration group in Virginia, has done just that, through our innovative floating classroom, “The Learning Barge”. This one-of-a-kind 32-by-120 foot barge traverses the Elizabeth River, offering students a unique opportunity to learn how to help make their river swimmable and fishable by 2020.

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Robin Dunbar is Education Director at The Elizabeth River Project in Portsmouth, Virginia. Aside from The Learning Barge, her current education projects include River Star Schools, Wetlands in the Classroom and her personal website at

To learn more about The Learning Barge, visit or The University of Virginia’s barge site, There are also a number of news clips and videos on construction of the barge available on YouTube (just search for “Learning Barge”). You can also email Robin at