September 18, 2012

Take a Ride on the Floating Classroom

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Students taking a course on Cayuga’s Floating Classroom don’t learn by reading books, sitting at desks or copying down notes from a chalkboard — instead, they get hands-on experience in lake and environmental science by traversing through 38.2 misty miles  of Cayuga Lake.

The Floating Classroom is an education program on Cayuga Lake, located right next to the Ithaca Farmers Market, that takes about 1,800 students onto the lake every year to perform environmental education.

“We try to give them a chance to use their science knowledge in a very hands on way,” Bill Foster ’87, program manager for the Floating Classroom.   Foster, along with the other volunteers on the Floating Classroom, teach students of all ages about the science happening in Cayuga Lake.  They tailor their instruction depending on the age of their students.  Middle–school lake enthusiasts can participate in the boat’s “Cayuga Eco-Lab” programs, for which they collect environmental data, assess water quality and habitat parameters and make biological observations.   They also get to go fishing for zooplankton and phytoplankton.

“Just about every seventh grader around the Lake has come aboard the boat and checked out the phytoplankton,” said Caroline Hoover, educator on the Floating Classroom, who has volunteered with the Floating Classroom for many years.   Part of her job includes bringing the students to the boat’s cabin to analyze their catch underneath microscopes.

“It’s just really fun and interesting to help kids understand the processes on the lake, she said. “They look at the phytoplankton and the zooplankton under the microscope and they go ‘Eww!’ I don’t want to swim in that any more!”

Though middle schoolers make up the majority of lake-learners, the Floating Classroom also offers an “Advanced Studies” program for high school and college students.  This program gives students an in depth look at plankton taxonomy, environmental chemistry and lake hydraulics, among other lake related topics.

In their lessons, the volunteers show the students how to use nautical tools like the Van door tube for surveying the lake’s discrete depths — which reaches 435 feet at its deepest.  The volunteers also help the students measure the water quality.  Cayuga Lake has a pH of 7-7.5.  According to the volunteers, the lake owes its healthy pH level to its limestone basin, which neutralizes the effects of acid rain.

The Floating Classroom offers Cornell students crash courses on lake science where they use rakes to collect seaweed for sorting.  Carla Smith ’13, a communications student, got to take a trip on the Floating Classroom.  She said her favorite part of the experience was sorting through the weeds that she pulled up from the lake.

“We found the different organisms in the weeds and we learned about the types of weeds and what they do in the lake and how they affect the ecosystem that’s down there,” she said.

Trey Utsey ’13, a communications student, also got the Floating Classroom experience. “It was a lot of fun,” he said. “I’d say my favorite part was throwing the rake in and getting to go hands-on with the plants.  It was a very lightening experience.” In addition to instructing students, the floating classroom offers classes to community members as well.

A new initiative that the volunteers are engaging the community in involves the identification of a harmful invasive seaweed called Hydrilla, which outcompetes native plants for resources, often choking out other sea plants from accessing sunlight and causing a cascading effect down the marine lake life.

The Floating Classroom has been on Hydrilla watch and education since an intern on the boat noticed the wicked waterweed two years ago while sorting through seaweed.  Hydrilla resembles a common sea plant found throughout Lake Cayuga called Elodea.  Elodea, unlike its disastrous doppelganger, is benign and native to the lake.  The Floating Classroom is involved in getting the community actively engaged in Hydrilla prevention and lake preservation applications.

“The idea is to get the community more in touch with their lake, get them to understand the system better and have them become a little more sophisticated in how they value the system,” said Foster. The community drives data collection on the Floating Classroom, and according to the volunteers, the residents and students have the biggest impact on protecting and preserving Lake Cayuga.

Original Author: Nicholas St. Fleur