“We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
Those now-famous words from Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry after the Battle of Lake Erie were written aboard the Brig Niagara, a two-mast tall ship that became the American flagship during the 1813 battle with the British fleet. But the Niagara’s claim to fame doesn’t end in the pages of history books – a replica of the ship still sails the Great Lakes today, serving as a backdrop for history lessons, sailing courses, and college classes.
One of those classes is Environmental Science on the Brig Niagara, offered through a partnership between Niagara University, Penn State University, and Ohio State University’s Stone Lab. Students from any college or university can live and study aboard the Niagara for three weeks, covering Great Lakes science, history, and environmental policy while actively helping to sail the ship.
“This fits right into the rest of the Stone Lab experience, where an hour of hands-on learning is better than 20 in the classroom,” says Dr. Bill Edwards, Associate Professor of Biology at Niagara University and lead instructor for the course. “We’ll take students on a trip across Lake Erie, Lake Huron, and Lake St. Clair, and we’ll experience each ecosystem first hand: we’ll get wet, encounter wildlife, get dirty, and do science at the same time as we sail the Niagara.”
Edwards, along with Dr. Sam Mason of SUNY Fredonia ’s Department of Chemistry, will accompany students for the length of the trip, while experts in marine archaeology, ecology, and microbiology will join the class for a few days each as their area of expertise is discussed. The Niagara will travel from Erie, PA to Alpena, MI and back, taking water samples, covering regional history and current policy issues like harmful algal blooms, and stopping at field stations along the way for more in-depth looks at everything from Great Lakes ecology to shipwrecks and their history.
In addition to a stop at Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island in western Lake Erie, Stone Lab Manager Matt Thomas will join part of the trip, to help students send a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to one of the shipwrecks at the National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, and to teach about Lake Erie issues and potential solutions being researched at Stone Lab.
“I did my Ph.D. work at Stone Laboratory, and we felt that, with Stone Lab’s position as the premier field station on the lower Great Lakes, that we had to make a stop there to understand the current ecology and research on Lake Erie,” Edwards explains.
Sailing on the historical Niagara – as compared to sailing on a modern motorized vessel – adds a new dimension to experiencing Great Lakes science. “The history of the Great Lakes ecosystem is really the history of the region’s people, and the Battle of Lake Erie opened up all the Great Lakes for settlement,” Edwards says. “As humans settled the Great Lakes, the impacts from that settlement started playing a larger role, so the ship brings life to the larger historical view that the students would not get motoring around on another ship.”
And really, the chance to live on a tall ship for a bit is just plain cool. “This opportunity to experience the Great Lakes first hand, to be a sailor and to be a scientist at the same time, won’t happen twice in a lifetime,” Edwards says. “You won’t get that anywhere else on the Great Lakes.”