The Miami Science Barge, a floating, self-sustaining, solar-powered experimental ecosystem that raises fish and vegetables and functions as outdoor classroom and science lab, will become part of the Frost Museum of Science, extending the reach of the institution’s new bayside home just as it’s set to open.
The nonprofit group that built and runs the innovative science barge, permanently moored in a bayfront notch at Museum Park, is donating it to the Frost. The museum’s long delayed $305 million facility is scheduled to open to the public just steps away on May 8.
Museum administrators and the barge’s designers say the marine lab is a perfect fit for the Frost’s mission of science education and research, and will provide Frost visitors a chance to get out on the water at the edge of Biscayne Bay. The barge has a platform extension that allows visitors to get down to the bay’s surface to take water samples, view marine life and perform other activites.
“The whole purpose of building something like this is to expose it to as many people as possible,” said barge co-originator Ted Caplow, an engineer, documentary film producer and entrepreneur who built the first science barge in New York City. “With the Frost, it’s gaining a wider audience and institutional support.”
As it announced the gift of the barge, the Frost also said it’s getting two major grants totaling nearly $2 million for its educational programs.
To create the barge lab, Caplow converted an old 120-foot-long steel barge with no engine, of the type that’s typically towed and used for marine construction. The job was done with funding from a Knight Foundation grant.
The focus of the barge, which has capacity for up to 140 people, is sustainability, Caplow said. It captures and recycles rainwater for use in aquaculture — fish species tilapia and cobia are raised on the barge — and in hydroponic gardens that grow lettuce, herbs and vine crops like tomatoes. All the energy used comes from solar panels.
“It’s about how we can live in harmony with nature, about how to convey ideas about sustainable living to students of all ages,” Caplow said. “It’s a perfect place for this. People want to experience the point where the city meets nature.”
Caplow also hopes that the Miami lab will generate ideas for new independent businesses and initiatives. That was the case with the ultra-popular 9-year-old New York barge, which is run by an independent nonprofit.
The Frost will honor the barge’s current schedule of events through June, then close it for upgrades and retrofits over the summer. It should reopen in time for the new school year, museum director Frank Steslow said.
“It’s a great opportunity to enhance what we offer inside the museum,” Steslow said. “It’s just a great complementary experience for our visitors and our school groups.”
Meanwhile, two grants will allow the museum to extend and expand its educational offerings. The first, a $520,811 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, will extend the life of the Frost’s ECHOS program, which has developed a hands-on, basic-science curriculum for preschool children and trains teachers. The program is in 34 Head Start and Miami-Dade public pre-K programs in low-income neighborhoods.
“It’s another aspect of the museum that’s mostly unknown but that we’re really proud of,” Steslow said.
The second grant, $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation, will allow the Frost to establish a new research project. The project will use a new interactive exhibit at the museum, River of Grass, to study how young children learn in that kind of setting through movement, and how to improve its efficacy.