Winona State University has a new, nearly $1 million floating classroom.
Named after Cal Fremling, a late fisheries biology professor who spent much of his career studying the Mississippi River, the vessel will offer teachers and students a close look at the river — and its ecosystem.
On one its early trips during this inaugural semester, the Cal Fremling recently broke away from the banks of the Mississippi River and traveled 20 minutes south, to the spot where Winona's treated sewer water flows into the big river.
"We're going to have you all work in pairs," biology professor Mike Delong told the undergraduate biology students on board. "We have four stations, so two people per net."
As Delong gathered the students at the bow, he gave each pair a plankton net, a funnel-shaped mesh with tiny holes and a plastic cylinder screwed to one end.
"Make sure your rope's free and throw it off the boat as far as you can and then pull it back," he said. "You're going to do that three times. Any questions? Alright, well, grab a net and start chucking."
For the next few minutes, freshman Susan Miller and sophomore Maddy Tucker tossed the net until the cylinder filled with water.
"It's kind of a greenish color. We have some plant matter floating about," Miller said. "Now all our fun little insects and beings and river plants are in our little jar and the lid's on tight and now we can go observe it under a microscope."
Inside the boat, Miller placed a drop of water on a glass slide, and over the course of 20 minutes, examined the sample under a microscope.
The Winona State University Foundation paid $750,000 for the 60-foot boat after receiving a $200,000 discount from its manufacturer, LaCrosse-based Skipperliner.
Inside, the air-conditioned classroom is set up with all the technology of a classroom on campus. There are about a dozen tables and chairs, a couple TVs, a Wi-Fi hot spot, even a sink for washing off river debris.
The students on board are among the first to use the floating classroom, assistant biology professor Amy Runck said.
"It's just nice to give them that opportunity to get out and be on the river and see biology happening and do real biology," she said. "I mean, it's not a trivial thing when you have 160 students in a course that everybody gets to do their own sample."
Students will use these samples for their lab work throughout the semester. After identifying the organism, they'll extract DNA, isolate a gene and sequence it. It's all standard textbook biology lessons, but Runck said the fact that students gathered their own samples will make a difference once they're back in a regular lab.
"I think it just means more because that's actually their sample. And they're curious about it and they can look at their neighbor and their organism is slightly different," Runck said. "How does that gene compare? Are there changes between two different species? They can assess that. So I think it does spark a little bit more curiosity."
The Cal Fremling is the second boat at Winona State. The university sold its first one in 2005 when it became too expensive to repair. A few years later, officials decided to get another one for classroom and lab use.
Jim Reynolds, a retired sociology professor who helped bring the boat to Winona State, said it is not just a boat for the sciences, but also a place for artists, birders and geologists to access the river.
"It's all there," Reynolds said. "This boat allows us to take our students and take community members, students of every age, out on the river to experience it first-hand."
Reynolds said Fremling, who died in 2010, would have been proud of the boat.
"Cal being a friend of mine for so many years, I know that he would be absolutely thrilled to have seen this resource and I know he would have been using that regularly if he were still alive and still teaching," Reynolds said.