Vista boat becomes classroom for sixth-grade science tourHundreds of area sixth-graders traded in their classroom desks for seats on the Vista Star last week.
Hundreds of area sixth-graders traded in their classroom desks for seats on the Vista Star last week.
As part of the 21st annual St. Louis River Quest, nearly 1,400 students from 16 local schools set sail on the St. Louis River estuary for hands-on learning opportunities, according to organizers.
Divided into small groups, the sixth -graders visited six learning stations on board the boat and another six inside the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. Local businesses and agencies presented on topics important to the St. Louis River region, ranging from pollution to boat safety to sustainable forestry.
Each local school visited for a 2½ hour period between Monday and Thursday. The students all seemed to agree that it was fun to get out of the classroom, at least for part of the school day.
“It was very interesting to learn all these new things,” said Christopher Hooper, a sixth-grader at Lakeview Christian Academy in Duluth, who took the voyage with his science class on Monday. “It’s important to know about all these things we’re doing that can mess up our lakes and rivers.”
Started in 1993, River Quest is a nonprofit agency, which is funded by contributions from Duluth Public Schools, the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, the Minnesota Sea Grant Program, the Vista Fleet and numerous other local businesses and agencies.
Originally limited to the Vista Star, the learning experience has grown over the years to include the DECC and become a four-day event. The number of students has grown as well: About 200 more sixth-graders took the trip this year than last, according to organizers.
This year saw presenters from numerous agencies including the U.S. Coast Guard, Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service and the St. Louis River Alliance, as well as private companies such as Sappi Fine Paper and NewPage.
Students learned about pollution, invasive species, bird conservation, recycling, sewer systems, oil spills, Great Lakes shipping and more.
David Bolgrien, a research biologist at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in Duluth, used a plastic model of a city to show students how contaminants such as oil, road salt and runoff from farms and golf courses end up in streams.
Bolgrien said he has presented at River Quest a few times previously and he finds that the students take an interest in the hands-on learning opportunities.
“They have a lot of fun with the diversity of the sites,” he said. “It puts a lot of information into an exciting setting.”
Bolgrien used water in spray bottles to demonstrate on the model how pollutants are washed downhill into bodies of water. Given Duluth’s hillside location, it’s not hard to get students to understand how the watershed pushes those materials into the river, he said.
“These students are at an age where they are more sophisticated and understand the uses for these materials. It’s not like kindergartners where we’d just say, ‘Oil is bad,’” Bolgrien said. “They know that these materials are only pollutants when they’re in the wrong place. Oil is great in your car, but not so much in the river.”
River Quest’s mission is to “enhance students’ awareness and understanding of the St. Louis River ecosystem and interrelated commercial, industrial and recreational activities.”
Adding in the 1,400 students served this year, more than 18,000 total students have taken part over the past two decades, according to the organization’s statistics.
Despite a chilly, windy day, students and teachers said they enjoyed the experience Monday.
“I think it was a fun and unique experience,” Lakeview Christian Academy student Katie Hoven said as she was preparing to leave the boat. “Learning about the watershed and conservation is important.”
Danielle Davis, a student-teacher from the University of Minnesota Duluth, is currently teaching Lakeview’s sixth-grade science class. She said her students responded well to the learning opportunities aboard the vessel.
“It’s nice that they’re able to get a mix of information, rather than just one topic,” she said. “It’s definitely nice to get out of the classroom every once in a while.”