The Pittsburgh Voyager: Charting a Second Course for Learning

by Mark Petruzzini

Like its NASA namesake that explored unseen frontiers of our solar system, the Pittsburgh Voyager gives Southwestern Pennsylvanians unique opportunities for discoveryùin the waters of the upper Ohio River and its tributaries. Stationed alongside the Carnegie Science Center's Requin submarine, Voyager is an 80-foot 70-ton mobile classroom, manned by a crew of sailors, educators and local students learning about nautical math, environmental science, riverfront development, and Pittsburgh history. The ship was joined in May 1997 by a nearly identical sister ship that doubles the capacity of the program. The second vessel will be christened with a new name when it begins its operations this fall. For the present it still has its Navy name -- YP657 (YP is for "Yard Patrol").

The 30-year-old Pittsburgh Voyager was built for the Navy by Stephens Brothers in Stockton, California, as a Yard Patrol boat in 1967. It was originally used to train naval officers in the art of navigation, boat operations and seamanship. Its four 6M Detroit Diesel 6û71 engines, capable of 660 horsepower, provide more power than the Voyager needs on these riversùinstead, only two engines are used at a time. The boat's top speed is 18 knots (21 mph).

The vessel's mechanical systems were overhauled by the Navy in 1990, before it was donated to the Voyager program in 1993. The Pittsburgh Voyager program fitted the Navy's goals for making the gift: to provide seafaring education for young people while they learn environmental science and water ecology. The program is innovative in the ways it explores the watershed of the upper Ohio, thus encouraging educational planning by the school districts to incorporate the on-board classroom into the curricula. The Voyager program has had leadership from many people, such as Beth O'Toole, who is now executive director.

The school groups that board the Voyager are separated into three teams: the Steelers, Pirates and Penguins. Each group is in rotation to learn about the different aspects of freshwater ecology, such as water chemistry, macroinvertebrates and micro-organisms. Students participating in the water chemistry station have a chance to learn about dissolved oxygen levels, pH, temperature and turbidity, and how changes in these levels can affect aquatic life.

At the macroinvertebrate station students use a petite-ponar to collect samples from the river bottom so that they can examine these life forms first hand. The micro-organisms are collected by students who use a plankton tow to retrieve water samples, and then they examine the phytoplankton and zooplankton organisms through a microscope. Information on samples collected from the rivers is entered into an onboard computer for comparison with future observations. This growing database gives researchers an increasingly useful picture of the rivers' changes.

During the voyage all students have a chance to look for and identify waterfowl and birds along the shoreline, and usually to experience a trip through Emsworth lock below Pittsburgh on the Ohio River. Students are surprised to know a boat can sail all the way from Pittsburgh to the Gulf of Mexico, and to see a water treatment plant located downstream from a sewage plant. The Voyager gives students a new view of Pittsburgh's riverfront realities and developments.

The four and a half hours students spend on the vessel are a small part of the entire learning process that makes the Voyager program unique in the country. For two weeks prior to their field experience aboard Voyager, students have prepared with the aid of a "captain's chest" filled with learning materials. After the trip students spend another week discussing what they have learned. Before the trip teachers participate in a two-day workshop to prepare for the classroom program they will present to their students.

Plans are being made for a pilot program to begin in the late fall or winter of 1997 or early 1998: a Nautical Math and Physical Science Module. This program will cover topics such as navigation, engineering, hydrology and physics, and give students a chance to see the direct application of math and science to the voyage they are experiencing.

Kathryn Duda's article in Carnegie Magazine (July/August 1995) helped bring the program to public attention. While there was wide publicity on television and in newspapers and other magazines, Director Beth O'Toole cites education-minded Carnegie Magazine readers as the greatest supporters of the program.

In May 1996, Governor Tom Ridge was on hand for the Three Rivers Environmental Awards Dinner, where Pittsburgh Voyager won a first place in the category of K-12 education. It was among 10 top winners, selected from more than 100 nominations, and 29 finalists. In 1996 Voyager also was presented with the River Keeper Award by the Ohio River Basin Consortium.

During the January 1996 flood that covered the Point of the Golden Triangle, Voyager was threatened by the fast currents and high water levels, and might have been damaged if it had not been shielded by the Carnegie Science Center's Requin submarine moored immediately in front of it. While the Pittsburgh Voyager is not a program of the Science Center, and administrators from both organizations are quick to point out Voyager's autonomy, several joint programs have been presented and more interaction is planned for the future.

The onboard science facilities have continued to improve. The topside of Voyager has a new prefabricated classroomùa 10-foot by 15-foot aluminum navigation and observation lab. There are aluminum benches and a new table to hold river charts and maps that students can view as they travel down the rivers. Heating vents and air conditioning in the topside classroom make trips possible during the colder months or in the extremes of weather. A canopied deck outside can be used for observations.

A renovation completed in January 1997 added a plankton lab, which was retrofitted in the original crew's quarters, and added new lab tables, cabinetry and microscopes.  The new technical equipment includes a videomicroscope, which allows a specimen to be magnified and displayed on a television screen, a turbidmeter, and a dissolved oxygen meter. With these tools, students can do more detailed investigations. Thus in three years, Voyager has become a fully functioning floating laboratory.

Voyager was also made more accessible for the handicapped with a wider doorway to the main classroom, and braces built in to allow for the addition of ramps to accommodate wheelchair-bound students. The galley has been altered to function as additional classroom space, and can be outfitted for overnight trips.

The Second Boat

The second Voyager YP boat cruised into the port of Pittsburgh on May 29, after a 1,900-mile two-and-a-half-week trip from New Orleans. It had already been shipped via ocean transport from San Diego to New Orleans. The northern route ran parallel to the Mississippi, via the Tombigbee waterway and the Tennessee River, and then the Ohio River. The strong spring current and the commercial traffic of the Mississippi are avoided by this route, which takes cargo through locks and dams and small towns in Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.

While the second boat will not have a topside classroom like the first, it will be retrofitted similarly in many respects. It will be more handicapped accessible, and allow for more flexibility in scheduling school classes. There can now be increased programming for community and corporate groups, and possible partnerships with other organizations. Special programs for the general public, such as the one-and-a-half-hour Saturday Sails, can be expanded. During off-peak hours there can be sailings for business organizations or convention groups, or organizations with a special interest in the rivers of Pittsburgh.

Saturday Sails were added for the public in the summer of 1997. A typical Voyager trip allows a maximum of 35 people to take the trip, and families and friends can now book the educational programs as part of a river voyage in Pittsburgh.

The second vessel should be in operation in the fall of 1997. As the Pittsburgh Voyager program looks towards its fifth year, the dedication and creativity of the staff remain high. O'Toole stresses that the program "enables Pittsburgh residents to learn about and celebrate the natural beauty, rich history, economic evolution and future developments of the three rivers. These are fun, hands-on river programs for students, families, seniors and anyone seeking an educational adventure."

Mark Petruzzini is the electronic editor of Carnegie Magazine. R. Jay Gangewere, editor of the magazine, also contributed to this story. For more information on the Voyager project, call (412) 488-5602.