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Have Boat, Will Travel (and Teach)

At River Exploration Camp, Pittsburgh’s three rivers are classroom and field trip rolled into one.

The Pittsburgh Voyager fleet gives kids and adults a first-hand look at Pittsburgh’s three rivers through programs like River Exploration Camp, offered in collaboration with Carnegie Science Center.







An 11-year-old girl lifts a test tube into the sunlight for a better view of the water inside. “I wonder what’s in here?” she thinks out loud, and then proceeds to prepare a slide on which she’ll examine living organisms from the Allegheny River. She’s one of 30 students attending the five-day River Exploration Camp aboard a floating laboratory that traverses Pittsburgh’s rivers every July. Co-sponsored by Carnegie Science Center and Pittsburgh Voyager, the popular camp gives kids the chance to immerse themselves in learning about the region’s rivers, fish and birds, hydrology, technology, and sustainability. And have some fun, too.

“ The children enjoy getting out on the river to see the wildlife, travel through the locks and dam system, learn about the bridges, and test the water for micooorganisms,” says Ron Baillie, chief program officer for Carnegie Science Center. “Then, when they return to dry land at the Science Center, they have the opportunity to explore, in greater depth, what they experienced on the rivers.”

The River Camp is just one example of the commitment to quality hands-on science education shared by the two North Shore neighbors. The collaboration also helps to spread the word about Pittsburgh Voyager’s unique brand of adventure-based, discovery
programs that are all about Pittsburgh’s most famous natural assets: its rivers.

“ Pittsburgh Voyager is unique not only in southwestern Pennsylvania, but the nation,” professes Karl Thomas, executive director of Pittsburgh Voyager. The non-profit group deploys a fleet of three boats that travel Pittsburgh’s three rivers, teaching kids (grades 5-12) and adults about river life and history as they make stops along the way. Two of the boats are retired U.S. Navy vessels first used to train midshipmen in navigation.

Founded by a group of parents who wanted to find a creative way to engage kids in learning about science and math on Pittsburgh’s rivers, Pittsburgh Voyager has come a long way since docking its first floating classroom on the shore of the Ohio River, right next to Carnegie Science Center, in 1995. And while it’s seen steady growth over the past 11 years, the pace is about to quicken. A new vessel will double its capacity and increase opportunites for public programs,
private charters, and school groups.

This summer, Pittsburgh Voyager will launch its new flagship vessel—to be named through student contests—that will be one of the premier “green” boats in the world. The $3-million boat is being engineered to minimize its impact on the environment and maximize its energy efficiency through the use of an innovative hybrid, diesel-electric propulsion system. Not unlike a hybrid car, the boat uses a combination of 100% renewable electric power from rechargeable battery banks and clean-burning domestic bio-diesel blended fuel. “This is the second use of this propulsion system in the world,” Thomas says, proudly.

In addition to its environmentally friendly propulsion system, the 150-passenger vessel is being built using the LEED process (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), similar to Pittsburgh’s many new “green” buildings, including the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, PNC Firstside Center, and Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Dinosaurs In Their World expansion project.

According to Thomas, the high-tech vessel’s construction—using low-impact, renewable materials, custom energy efficient windows, and other techniques new to the shipbuilding industry—will serve as a real-world example of the sustainable design process. “Most importantly, this remarkable boat will be a laboratory where students can learn about the impact of humans interacting with their environment,” Thomas says. He adds that when students immerse themselves in Pittsburgh Voyager’s floating laboratories, “they’re not just learning about the world of river ecology and sustainability—they’re living it.”

The River Exploration Camp, organized by Pittsburgh Voyager and Carnegie Science Center, is now accepting registrations for its young crew (see registration information below). As for the future of joint programming between the North Shore neighbors, Baillie notes that the Science Center is currently exploring new ways to take advantage of its strategic river location—as well as the defining role the rivers can and should play in the city’s development.

“ We’ve recently started a dialogue with a number of river- and environmental-based groups including the River Life Task Force, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, and the Army Corps of Engineers to discuss the potential for a major collaborative that we hope will take shape in the next few years,” he says.

Adds Thomas, “This growing interest in the rivers can open an incredible door for Pittsburgh Voyager. It’s an amazing opportunity, and we’re excited to be a part of it.”

To register for River Exploration Camp, call 412.237.1637 or visit Summer Camps at To learn more about Pittsburgh Voyager, visit

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