Firefly, a solar-powered boat, will connect Camden students with the Delaware
| October 3, 2023
A deepwater marina in Camden, N.J., will become home to a catamaran that will take city students on educational excursions on the Delaware River under plans being spearheaded by a nonprofit environmental group.
The solar-powered vessel, known as the Firefly, will be owned and operated by the nonprofit Upstream Alliance. Don Baugh, president and founder of the organization, hopes to begin student programs on the river by the spring of 2025.
“We want to build a platform for students to conduct investigations about their local environment,” Baugh said.
The plan to build and operate the Firefly emerged from the group’s mission, which is to encourage aquatic and coastal conservation efforts by building connections between communities and their local waterways.
Upstream Alliance views Camden and Philadelphia as key points to begin drawing a connection between the Delaware River and those living nearby, said Baugh, who estimates the group will reach its fund-raising goal for the project by October.
At that point, a year-long construction process will begin on the boat based on a design by Gerr Marine, a naval architecture and yacht-design firm.
Funding for the vessel is being secured through philanthropic donations. Baugh did not disclose the project cost but said bulk of it was covered by an anonymous donor.
Baugh said students on board the Firefly can expect to engage in scientific inquiries, including observing wildlife native to the river, running tests on water samples and using plankton nets to catch microscopic life.
Partnering with teachers
In addition to the learning experiences, Camden educators and students will be able to take it on field trips from its dock at Wiggins Park Marina in Camden to Palmyra Cove Nature Park in Palmyra, N.J., and Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia.
Margarita Olivencia, the education director for the Firefly, will serve as the liaison between Upstream Alliance and Camden’s public and charter schools.
Olivencia, who was born and raised in Camden, is the director of Rowan University’s Upward Bound Program, which provides support to Camden’s English-as-a-second-language students in their preparation for college.
Olivencia and Baugh have already brought Camden educators and school administrators out on the river aboard other vessels.
“We want to give them a feel of what they’ll be seeing and experiencing so we can get feedback from them,” Olivencia said.
In her most recent meeting with Camden teachers, Olivencia led a discussion about potential hands-on projects and activities for students. The aim is for teachers to design their own lesson plans for students aboard the Firefly, with guidance on the resources available to them from Upstream Alliance.
“My goal is to align what we do on the vessel with the statewide curriculum,” Olivencia said. “That way, what they learn on the boat can be expanded on in the classroom before and after they get on the Firefly.”
Connecting the public to the water
Though she is currently working with Camden’s math and science teachers on lesson plans, Olivencia sees room to expand to other subjects, like history, where students might spend a day learning about how the city’s relationship with the river has evolved over time.
The Firefly, which will be operated by Upstream Alliance staff, will be 49 feet long and designed to carry a captain, a mate and 32 passengers. Officials estimate it will serve 2,400 students per year.
Its roof will be covered in solar panels that will charge the lithium iron phosphate batteries to power the vessel.
Students aboard the Firefly will be required to wear life vests at all times, and they will receive instructions on safety procedures before boarding. The boat itself will be certified to carry passengers by the U.S. Coast Guard before any students come aboard.
The boat’s primary function will be to serve the students of Camden, but Baugh also plans to use it to connect the rest of the community with the river.
“It’s a school boat, 9 to 3, Monday through Friday, but on weekends and evenings we’re hoping that it can serve as a flagship for the Delaware to bring adults and families out on the river so they too can have that experience,” Baugh said.
The Delaware River’s confluence with one of its tributaries, the Cooper River, is in Camden.
Once a dangerously polluted waterway, the two-mile stretch of the Cooper that runs through Camden was elevated in 2020 by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to a Category 1 protection status as a reflection of its improved water quality and ability to support an endangered species.
Baugh noted that Camden is a city surrounded by water.
“The injustice has been that people have been walled off from the water and had little access to it since it had previously been highly polluted,” he said.