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Learning Math and Science Through Teamwork on the High ... River

December 26, 1995

PITTSBURGH (AP) _ For many children, the equation is simple: Math plus science equals boredom.

But hundreds of students are discovering a better solution that has more in common with the expeditions of Jacques Cousteau than the algebra class of Mr. Peabody. On a gray, 80-foot former Navy training vessel, they learn critical thinking, real-world problem solving and teamwork.

The Pittsburgh Voyager has been converted into a floating classroom that teaches more than formulas and memorization. Scrambling fore and aft on a recent expedition, for example, 29 students eagerly collected scientific information for a shipboard computer database logging changes in the Ohio River’s health.

``The idea is to create excitement on the river and keep a gleam in students’ eyes,″ said William R. McGowen, who heads the river program. ``We want them to say, `Maybe math and science aren’t so bad.′ ″

It’s a message that seems to be sinking in.

``If you just sit and listen to somebody talking, you get bored and fall asleep. This is a lot more exciting,″ student David Metzger said as he checked the wind direction on the river from the Voyager’s deck.

``I’ve never seen a program like this,″ biology teacher Ron Gratz said on the same trip.

The 28-year classroom veteran watched as the shivering ninth-graders from suburban North Hills Junior High School crowded the boat’s stern to trawl for microscopic animal and plant life in the frigid river.

``We’re going to look at them under a microscope and find out if there’s enough for the fish to feed on,″ said Greg Kirkland, 14.

Classmates checked cloud conditions, calculated wind speeds and tested water for oxygen content _ a measure of the river’s health. As the Voyager sailed past low-riding coal barges and rusted work boats, students recorded sightings of rock doves, loons, grebes and mallard ducks.

``We can’t get away with just lecturing any more,″ said teacher Mary Lou McNavage. ``You have to give students real problems to solve.″

The children on the boat are part of an American generation that will likely kick the information revolution into high gear, explore Mars and cure AIDS. And they’ll earn a living in a high-technology global economy where smokestack skills and a strong back won’t cut it, said Harvard University Professor Lewis Branscomb.

Even low-skill jobs will require at least some technical expertise.

``People will be required to think, work together in teams and solve technical problems without having to call an engineer,″ Branscomb said.

Branscomb chaired a 1991 Carnegie Commission study calling for new teaching methods to improve math and science education. Hands-on learning programs like Voyager are part of the solution, he said.

Filmmaker and photographer Kenneth Love and teacher Jim Coor founded the program in 1992. The Navy provided the decommissioned training vessel; government, corporate and private foundation grants support Voyager’s work.

Groups of elementary and middle school students, 30 at a time, board the tidy gray vessel three or four times a week for four-hour working cruises on the city’s rivers.

Pittsburgh, the nation’s largest inland port, stands at the point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio River.

``We’re not a field trip. We’re part of the curriculum,″ said McGowen, who flew Navy jets and commanded the massive aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy for two years before retiring as an admiral.

Weeks before students set foot on deck, they begin studying a ``Captain’s Chest″ of materials provided by Voyager. They’ll continue to work with the data when they return to their dry-land classroom, McGowen said.

One elementary school principal, Barbara Rudiak, is so impressed she’s building the school’s entire curriculum around river studies. Phillips Elementary is now known as ``the River School.″

``The kids can really see a purpose to their learning,″ Rudiak said.

Patricia C. Griest, one of three teachers on the Voyager’s crew, said science experiments and relevant math problems are not especially new. But the shipboard experience transports them into the realm of practical science.

``Students use legitimate scientific field equipment. And they use all their senses and their brains to investigate the rivers,″ she said.

Below decks in the converted crew quarters, a half-dozen students squinted into microscopes to examine river samples.

``This is scum,″ said Kate Plowey, 14, as she slotted a glass slide into a microscope. ``There might be some algae living in here.″

Nearby, Carol Smialek, also 14, struggled with her fellow students to reconcile wildly different results from separate oxygen level tests on the same river water samples.

Students in a school science lab might well shrug off the disparity and move on to homeroom. But aboard Voyager, there’s much more at stake. Faulty observations could skew later studies of the river.

``We’re doing science instead of just studying it,″ student Kristen Balestreire said.