Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom Mixes Cruise and Science

Part science laboratory, cruise ship and teaching tour, the Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom Project takes on a dynamic view of the lake...

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By Matthew Hayes via the Ithaca Journal, 8/12/13

ITHACA — Just one of hundreds of boats chugging out across Cayuga Lake on a typical day, the MV Haendal and its crew has a unique role out on the ancient body of water.

Part science laboratory, cruise ship and teaching tour, the Cayuga Lake Floating Classroom Project takes on a dynamic view of a lake that is both a source of wonder and everyday utility for the communities surrounding its waters.

“Cayuga Lake holds a big part of everyone’s heart around the area,” said Cory VanNederynen, one of the tour instructors. “You see it everyday, you smell it every day; if you’re lucky you can get on it several times a year if not throughout the entire summer.”

Eco-cruises aboard the Floating Classroom, which explore the southern end of the lake with a narrated tour, lake science and hands-on activities for the public, are available five days a week by reservation.

From Program Director Bill Foster all the way to his cadre of interns, the work of the classroom provides near daily voyages on the water, blending community instruction with hard science. The crew has already burnished its scientific bona fides: it was aboard the floating classroom that the invasive plant hydrilla was found growing in the Cayuga Inlet in 2011, discovered by Jordan Stark, a high school intern at the time.

This summer, the exploration has included a plankton assessment and a look into water temperature profiles and clarity, an ongoing experiment the classroom has been conducting for seven years. More than just collecting information, the group strives to present the data in a clear, accessible way.

“We have to find ways to make it attractive, engaging and helping people to understand what’s happening in the lake,” Foster said.

Providing a clear picture of the lake is a big part of what the classroom does, whether in small tours aboard the boat or through the science they capture with each trip.

That chance to really experience the lake — not only floating above it, but from a microscopic perspective teeming with life — is what drew Aurora Solla, a Trumansburg High School student, to join as a summer intern.

Solla recalled a group of young girls earlier in the season astonished by lake samples placed underneath the boat’s microscopes.

“I was amazed the first time I came out, too, just to see how much you don’t see of the lake,” she said of a grade school biology field trip that got her hooked on marine science.

While the classroom can provide a microscopic glimpse into a milliliter of water, the classroom also takes a wider view of the lake and its health.

“Without Cayuga Lake we’d have a little issue with the one-hundred thousand plus people getting water every day,” said VanNederynen. “(The tour) allows them to be able to look at where their water comes from and be more in tuned with, next time they have an oil leak in their car or a gas leak, to maybe get that fixed a little quicker.”

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