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Eco-friendly classroom to keep learning afloat; Barge to be made of recycled pop bottles

One empty two-liter plastic soda bottle can float an object that weighs at least 3.3 pounds.

So marine engineers are confident that nearly 6,000 plastic bottles will serve as a strong foundation for what will soon be one of the region's most unique learning environments.

Think floating classroom. Then add some unusual eco-friendly features, a video projection system and a picturesque waterfront environment. It's no wonder that several local entities are eager to use the pavilion for everything from aquatic education and sailing instruction, to sessions on ecology and recycling.

A giant barge that's 24 feet long and nearly 15 feet wide will soon make its debut on Buffalo's outer harbor. Part of its floor will be made of Plexiglas so visitors can view the recycled pop bottles that will keep the 11,300-pound platform afloat.

The wood that will be submerged in water will be coated with a special copper paint.

"Zebra mussels don't like copper," explained Pierre Wallinder, captain of Sail Buffalo Sailing School, one of several groups involved in the project.

Eventually, the plan is to install solar panels on the structure so that it can generate its own power for its lights and projector.

Credit the Plastiki for helping plant the seeds for this offbeat venture. Adventurer David de Rothschild built the catamaran composed of about 13,000 plastic bottles. He has been sailing the Pacific in the vessel to showcase how waste can be tapped as a resource and to make people aware of the dangers of plastic pollution in waterways.

When some local residents heard about the Plastiki launch, talk turned to creating a stationary barge that would highlight the same eco-friendly attributes.

Pieces of the puzzle began falling into place quickly. The Cazenovia Community Resource Center & Library submitted a grant proposal. The Richard W. Rupp Foundation agreed to provide a $10,000 grant to build the structure, which includes 10,000 pounds of marine-grade pressure-treated wood. First Buffalo River Marina off Fuhrmann Boulevard agreed to provide waterfront space to the barge for at least three years. Educational and cultural groups made their interest known in staging programs on the floating classroom.

"It's such a unique environment that will get individuals excited about participating, and that's two-thirds of the battle right there," said Mark Mortenson, president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Museum of Science.

The museum operates the Tifft Nature Preserve, which is a short distance from the floating classroom. Mortenson said the structure will become an "ecostation" where people can learn about everything from life forms in Lake Erie, to how routine choices made by people can have ripple effects on our environment.

"People take for granted the unique ecosystem that we have right here in our own backyard," Mortenson said.

The Western New York Maritime Charter School has been a key sponsor of the floating classroom. Lawrence W. Astyk, the school's commandant -- or principal said the structure will allow the school to have a waterfront classroom for its sailing program and other aquatic programs. The structure will have a slanting roof, screened sides to keep the bugs out, and counters and chairs.

South Council Member Michael P. Kearns, who has been coordinating the project, said organizers have also applied for $10,000 in grants that would be used for additional programming. Kearns is hoping the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. will approve the grant.

"This is the epitome of the lighter, quicker, cheaper approach that planners have embraced in an effort to bring new attractions to our waterfront," he said.

Some coordinators also hope to offer seminars that showcase Buffalo history, including the prominent role that the waterfront played in the region's dramatic growth in earlier centuries.

There will even be a historic element to the classroom's name. When the structure is hauled to the waterfront on a flatbed at some point this week, it will be christened the Frances Clara Folsom Cleveland, in honor of the wife of President Grover Cleveland. She grew up in Buffalo's Allentown District.

George Cleveland, the grandson of Grover and Frances, inspected the construction project that got under way recently. He visited EMCOM Industries, a metal fabricating shop on Genesee Street that has donated space for the building mission.

"It's just extraordinary," said Cleveland. "It's a one-of-a-kind design."

The master carpenter who is overseeing a team of volunteers said he believes that once the floating classroom is launched, it will be the largest barge of its kind in the nation. T.A. Bystryk said the platform will be able to accommodate up to 20 children at one time and up to 15 adults.

Does Bystryk have any lingering doubts that 6,000 old plastic soda bottles will be sufficient to keep this unusual learning lab afloat? He said the construction crew is in frequent contact with a marine engineer and other experts.

"They tell us that it's definitely going to float," he said.