A Floating Environmental Classroom

Danielle Willkens

By Charlie Feigenoff (Ph.D., English '83)
Danielle Willkens

Danielle Willkens
Photo by Tom Cogill

When most people think of the environment, they imagine a pristine mountain stream or a meadow blanketed in wildflowers—anything but the heavily industrialized Elizabeth River in Southeast Virginia. Yet it is precisely because the hand of man rests so heavily on this estuary of the Chesapeake Bay that Phoebe Crisman, an associate professor of architecture, chose it as the site for the Learning Barge. This floating field station, designed and being built by architecture and engineering students in collaboration with local partners, will give schoolchildren a better understanding of natural processes and the contributions they can make to a healthy environment.

Danielle Willkens, a graduate student in architecture, is one of two student leaders for the Learning Barge. “This has been a fascinating experience for me,” she says. “The project is so rich because so many different factors—economic, demographic, environmental, educational—come together at the site and influence our design.”

As a student leader, Willkens has assumed a number of responsibilities in addition to teaching. She had primary responsibility for assembling the documentation and representing the Learning Barge project to judges at the Environmental Protection Agency’s third annual P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) student design competition on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.—and she did so successfully. The barge was one of six projects to be recognized with sustainability design awards of $75,000 each.

Willkens has also been working with a naval architect who is helping design the barge’s hull and bilge system. “This has been a great exercise for me as a student,” Willkens says. “We’re working on a boat, so we have to follow the Coast Guard Code, not the building codes that most architects are familiar with.”

In addition, Willkens is part of the team researching green technology incorporated in the barge’s design. A demonstration project, its electrical systems will be powered by solar panels and wind turbines, and it features a rainwater collection system as well as a water filtration system using beds of marsh grasses on its deck.

In the process, Willkens has learned a lot about teamwork. Because the project involves so many collaborators and constituents, Willkens finds herself spending much of her time in meetings. The barge is being constructed in collaboration with the Elizabeth River Project (a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration of the Elizabeth River); the school districts of Portsmouth, Chesapeake, and Virginia Beach; the Hampton Roads Alliance for Environmental Education; and a score of other government, educational, and corporate groups. “We need to be able to explain why we made the decisions we did, while being responsive to the needs of our stakeholders,” she says. “It is a dialogue.”

If all goes well, the Learning Barge will be launched in August 2008, but Willkens’ connection with environmental design and education will continue. She intends to use her experience with the Learning Barge to foster the development of environmental field stations in other areas of the country. “I want to take the idea behind the Learning Barge and find new and appropriate ways to express it in other environments besides the Elizabeth River,” she says.