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Philadelphia Water expanding community learning experiences with floating classroom

As Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works outgrows its landlocked educational space, the group is embarking on plans to build a floating classroom to deliver learning experiences along nearby urban waterways. 

Artist rendering of floating lab“We thought, why not take what we do inside, outside?” said Dionne Watts-Williams, communications and special events manager for Fairmount Water Works (FWW), the educational arm of the Philadelphia Water Department housed inside a 207-year-old former water pumping station. (At right, artist's rendering of floating lab.)

FWW recently received a $3 million grant from Pennsylvania’s state-sponsored Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to help fund the $6 million needed to build the Floating Water Workshop. The water department will obtain additional public and private funding to cover the balance.  

Officials hope to begin construction of the floating workshop – a 5,400-square-foot barge -- early next year. Once complete, the barge will spend six months of the year on the Schuylkill River before floating down the channel to the Delaware River for the next six months. 

Dionne Watts-Williams“There’s something about being on the water,” Watts-Williams said. “It’s one thing to see something from afar, but another to actually be on the river experiencing it.”
The multiuse classroom will have space for all things related to STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics), including room for art exhibits, musical performances, miniature ecosystem displays and science experiments. 

Developing local water ambassadors

FWW aims to educate visitors ranging from toddlers in day care to college students and adults about the importance of protecting and understanding their natural environment and the city’s urban waterways. Each year, roughly 50,000 people visit the education center. 

To that end, the organization offers dozens of programs to help people connect with and learn about local water sources and services. Kids don lab coats during Science Saturdays and experiment with lab equipment and river samples. High school students meet with the on-site aquatic scientist to learn about the freshwater mussel hatchery and water utility careers. 

Artist rendering of floating classroomVisitors come with school field trips, summer camps or with their families just looking for something to do. And they leave with a better understanding of the water cycle, floods, microscopic organisms, watershed protection and much more. 

“By educating this next generation, these children will go home to their parents, who are water bill payers, our customers, and now they’ve become ambassadors of the watershed,” Watts-Williams said. “But all ages – they all walk away with something different after they come here.” (At right, artist's rendering of floating classroom.)