Downtown Miami

Miami Science Barge offers city children chance to explore nature

Miami-Dade County Public Schools third- and fifth graders learn about aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms, and hydroponic farming using nutrient-rich water instead of soil.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools third- and fifth graders learn about aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms, and hydroponic farming using nutrient-rich water instead of soil. Photo provided to the Miami Herald

In a stark contrast to downtown Miami’s bustling government and business epicenter — now sprouting mega-luxury developments — the new Miami Science Barge is working to promote a less-is-more approach to life with a 120-by-30-foot floating environmental education center. It’s likely the only venture of its kind in Florida.

The recipient of a 2015 Knight Cities Challenge grant that provided $300,000 in initial funding, the Miami Science Barge officially opened to the public on Earth Day, April 22. The vessel is permanently docked on Biscayne Bay, adjacent to the Pérez Art Museum, within the up-and-coming Museum Park.

The Miami Science Barge is entirely off the grid, powered by dozens of solar panels instead of electricity, including a solar tracker that follows the sun like a sunflower, and harvests all its fresh water supply from rain collected with a sun awning and the ocean.

It operates using the same amount of energy the average American home uses in order to show how it’s possible to rely solely on sustainable technology. Every detail carries this message, from the wood deck embedded with solar panels to the three hydroponic farms growing basil, green onions and rhubarb, and aquaculture tanks filled with cobia and shrimp.

Another exhibit features a simulated wetland with mangroves that uses very low energy and creates a loop where water and nutrients are re-circulated from other tanks.

“The Miami Science Barge demonstrates the Miami of the Future,” said director Nathalie Manzano-Smith. “We want to be a place where people not only gather to learn about sustainable issues but also be an example and where people can come to see how it all works.”

Manzano-Smith, who has a background in green building and public health, is chief operating officer at CappSci, a global nonprofit that applies science and engineering to issues of sustainability and communal well-being. To create the Miami Science Barge, she teamed up with CappSci founder and CEO Ted Caplow, an environmental engineer who created the first Science Barge located in Yonkers, New York in 2007.

A barge is a flat-bottomed boat typically used for transporting freight down a canal or river. With the help of her crew, Manzano-Smith transformed an old commercial barge into a sustainable floating lab at a boatyard on the Miami River and then tugged it to its current location. It took about a year to build and cost just under $1 million to complete. A lease with the Bayfront Park Management Trust will secure the spot on Biscayne Bay for the next two years.

One of the most unique aspects of the Miami Science Barge is its location, a juxtaposition of natural resources and sky-rises. In an urban environment like downtown Miami, it’s particularly challenging for children to connect with nature. Even when they live in close proximity to the ocean or bay, they often don’t get the opportunity to explore marine life because it’s not affordable or easily accessible

Over the summer, the Miami Science Barge hosted third- and fifth-graders on field trips from Miami-Dade County Public Schools, who learned about the science behind renewable energy systems, sustainable food production and species native to Biscayne Bay, among other topics. The STEM-focused field trips will resume with the start of the new school year.

“The Miami Science Barge demonstrates the integration of STEM since the vessel is engineered to incorporate the use of mathematics and technologies such as solar power, aquaponics and hydroponics to sustain living organisms. The vessel provides students with a greater understanding of the world around them, while inspiring curiosity which, in essence, is the nature of being a scientist,” said Cristian Carranza, administrative director of Miami-Dade Schools’ Office of Academics & Transformation.

In addition, Miami Science Barge staff is planning to offer hydroponic farming workshops for all ages on the weekends starting in September. Hydroponics is a method of cultivating plants in a mineral-rich water solution, rather than soil.

“We’ve received a lot of interest for the weekend workshops,” Manzano-Smith said. “It’s a challenge living in an urban environment. Your balcony is a great place to create a garden and grow foods.”

The Sip of Science lecture series will continue select evenings featuring experts in various areas, including cave diving and aqua culture. Guests can attend each lecture for a $10 donation, which includes a free beer and an opportunity to tour of the barge.

In the future, Manzano-Smith hopes to partner with the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, currently under construction inside Museum Park, to offer students a “messy, gritty outdoor experience” that compliments the museum’s educational curriculum.

If you go

The Miami Science Barge is free and open to the public 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.

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