By David Rattigan
There’s a lot to learn from the Merrimack River, and on a recent boat ride with 22 children from a Reading elementary school, Bob Theriault was trying to impart some knowledge.
“Does anyone know how long the Merrimack River is?’’ asked Theriault, a museum teacher from the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“1,700 miles?’’ queried Evan Meehan, a fifth-grader at the J.W. Killam Elementary School.
“Well,’’ Theriault said, “the distance between here and Florida is 1,200 miles.’’
While Meehan’s answer was 1,584 miles off, he was still happy to be doing his learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.
Meehan and his classmates were participating in the River as a Classroom program run by the Tsongas Industrial History Center, which takes students in grades 5 to 8 out on the river to learn more about the role waterways play in society, and about water quality and the need to protect it.
The history center is celebrating its 20th year (the kickoff is tomorrow) and recently recorded its 1 millionth visitor. A partnership of the University of Massachusetts Lowell Graduate School of Education and the National Park Service at Lowell National Historical Park, it offers a variety of guided, hands-on educational programs.
While the River as a Classroom program is only offered from Sept. 12 through Oct. 19 and May 14 through June 15, it is immensely popular. The trip to the Merrimack is an annual outing for students at the Killam School, and it invariably ends up in many of the students’ “memory books.’’
“It’s definitely a fan favorite,’’ said science teacher Jo-Ellen McGinnity, who coordinates the trip.
More importantly, McGinnity and other educators say that taking the students out on the river helps to reinforce the lessons of the classroom.
“It directly links with everything I teach in environmental science, and it’s right in their backyard,’’ McGinnity said. “When they get out here, they make a personal connection.’’
While the educators impart lessons in multiple areas, much of the focus is on water quality and environmental stewardship. Out on the boat, the students conducted tests to measure the levels of dissolved oxygen, temperature, turbity (clearness), and acidity.
While the Reading students went out on a sunny, clear day, the center’s assistant director, Becky Warren, said that barring a thunderstorm, the boats go out rain or shine.
“We don’t melt, and we want kids to know they won’t melt,’’ Warren said. “The whole purpose is to learn about water and the quality of water, so why not be in it?’’
UMass Lowell professors Fred Martin and Michelle Scribner-MacLean recently received a $1.3 million National Science Foundation grant for a project to collect, share, and visualize water quality data from the Merrimack on the Internet. The data will help provide a picture of the health of the river.
Academics are considering how to incorporate the grant with the River as a Classroom program, said center director Sheila Kirschbaum, who said that the system being used as part of the grant is more sophisticated that what students are currently using.
“It could turn into a parallel program,’’ she said. “It might be that we decide to completely convert River as a Classroom to use these sensors’’ to test water in more high-tech ways.
Most of the Reading students said they enjoyed the boat ride the most, but Captain Tom Gallagher, who pilots the boat, said that as the session goes along, it’s not unusual for the students to begin noticing outfall pipes or rusted shopping carts on the riverbanks.
“On the way out, they never see anything,’’ he said. “An hour and a half later, they’re junior detectives.’’
Half the group went out in a 90-minute morning session while the other group conducted experiments in an on-shore lab/classroom at UMass Lowell’s Bellegarde Boathouse. After lunch, the groups switched.
In the on-shore classroom, the topic being taught by park ranger William Morton was an ecological overview called All The World’s Water.
“The one thing I want you to bring away from this today is that water is incredibly precious,’’ he said. “Without it, could we have life on this planet? Not that we know of.’’
Fifth-grader James Rigney, 10, of Reading, said that conducting water tests out on the river helped the students in his boat connect with real scientists.
“I also liked it at the end when the driver went fast,’’ he added.