Floating St. Johns River classroom, dock ready for JU students

Classroom valued at nearly $500,000

Author: By Christina Kelso
Published On: Apr 19 2013 02:27:00 PM EDT   Updated On: Apr 19 2013 02:30:21 PM EDT
Floating classroom
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

After six years of brainstorming, planning and paperwork, Jacksonville University's Marine Science Research Institute will finally be "river-ready" this fall with a state-of-the-art floating classroom for students.

The 45-foot-by-12-foot vessel and a new companion dock, with a total value of nearly $500,000, will allow students and faculty to hit the water for more engaging and immediate research, classes and study, MSRI officials said.

The Coast Guard-certified pontoon vessel will be equipped with student-oriented design, lab stations, electrical power and the capability to accommodate classes of up to 28 people. Delivery is expected for July, and use in classes is set to begin in September.

The idea to incorporate a floating classroom into the curriculum of marine science to do water-quality studies, marine life sampling and more emerged in 2007 through conversations among faculty, students and donors.

"We didn't really want a traditional oceanographic vessel," said A. Quinton White, executive director of the MSRI. "We wanted something that would be more student-oriented, more river-friendly and something we could get more people involved in quicker."

Previously, the MSRI had five small boats in its fleet, but each could carry only six to 10 people. With the addition of such a large vessel, White hopes to eventually have all marine science and biology classes spending time on the river.

The vessel will be a versatile platform for class exercises. On board, students will be able to engage in sampling and observation of river life and have access to equipment such as microscopes.

"It will give us hands-on experience seeing and identifying everything that's in the river," said Summer Gagel, sophomore marine science major. "I think it will mean a lot more to the students because they will be able to see it; it's not just in a book."

The floating classroom was funded largely by a $75,000 challenge grant from JU Trustee Chuck Wodehouse, and the new dock by a $100,000 challenge grant from donor W.C. Gentry.

Although the original plan was to have the floating classroom built from scratch, the MSRI stumbled into a lucky situation when a boat designed with almost identical specifications was found on the market. Originally built as a set of two for an eco-tourism company, the boat was purchased by the MSRI when the original purchaser decided to buy only one.

"It's a little bit serendipitous but it's very exciting for us," White said.

The addition of a floating classroom adds a new level of appeal to students considering studying marine science or biology at JU.

"It made me want to transfer here," said Brittany Dion, JU junior and marine science major, who came to the University after completing her associate degree at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

"I'm really excited about it," said Dion. "I think it will bring a lot of good opportunities and make a lot more freshmen come to the school."

As the arrival date of the floating classroom inches closer, the next challenge for the MSRI will be to work out scheduling and operational details for the ship, which as White said is "a nice problem to have." The MSRI intends to adapt the vessel for uses other than classes and is working out final details.

"I feel very fortunate with the way things have come together," White said. "You can't do any of this stuff by yourself. It takes a team. It takes a lot of people working together."

As plans for the floating classroom and new dock settle into reality, the staff of the MSRI is also eyeing further expansion and development in the near future. The institute hopes to see an expanding graduate program and more grant work and research opportunities alongside it.

"In some ways, the sky's the limit," White said. "We have tremendous synergy among the people within the institute already, and that's going to be very exciting as we move forward."