Why a research vessel?

Middlebury College is blessed by its proximity to Lake Champlain, a 435-square-mile lake – the sixth largest in the US. An historic waterway and the birthplace of the US Navy, the lake contains many shipwrecks. It borders Vermont, New York, and Quebec and sits at the center of the region’s ecosystems, which boast impressive biodiversity. The region also holds 34 hazardous-waste sites and 95 landfills, yet the lake is a major source of drinking water for roughly 200,000 people. Compared to the Great Lakes, however, Lake Champlain remains under-studied.

For 24 years, Middlebury College’s research vessel, the R/V Baldwin (RVB), served the College as a “floating laboratory” on Lake Champlain. This remarkable facility provided unique opportunities for faculty-student collaborative research, research training, and teaching in Geology, Biology, and Environmental Studies, but by 2009 the RVB had reached its limits. It was nearly 30 years old, was last upgraded in 1990, and couldn’t be renovated any further.

Though well equipped, the RVB was undersized and out-of-date for research and class requirements, and maintenance costs were escalating. Weight-load limits restricted the amount of gear on the vessel, which meant that equipment had to be unloaded and reloaded for most trips. Because of Lake Champlain’s length (~100 miles) and the vessel’s slow speed (6–8 knots), it often took longer than a single day to reach research sites. The RVB was unsuited for the short, choppy storm waves on Lake Champlain, so it couldn’t work on the Main Lake during rough conditions. Research access on the lake was restricted mainly to the narrow, weed-choked southern regions. The RVB’s size also restricted student access to lake research. Its maximum capacity was adequate for most summertime faculty and senior-thesis research, but during the academic year some classes had to go out multiple times to accomplish a single research “errand,” while other classes had to be split up — or couldn’t be accommodated at all.

In 2006, an external review of the Geology Department (the main user of the RVB) recommended replacing the RVB with a larger, more seaworthy vessel built to United States Coast Guard (USCG) T-boat safety specifications. A generous grant from the Lintilhac Foundation supported the planning effort. However, the cost of replacing the vessel was prohibitive, and the onset of the Great Recession shortly thereafter appeared to mean that this dream was now dead in the water. Then, in 2009, the National Science Foundation announced the Academic Research Infrastructure Recovery and Reinvestment (ARI-R2) Program, a funding opportunity backed by federal stimulus dollars. Because we had recently completed a feasibility report on replacing the RVB, the College was ideally prepared to apply for this funding, and to our delight, the NSF gave us the opportunity we had been yearning for: an award to replace the College’s aging research facility.

This new floating laboratory will be a College facility, used by all of the sciences. It will expand research opportunities for Middlebury College’s faculty and provide superior research training for its students. Middlebury is a leader in environmental and science experiential learning and field research, and the College is excited to be able to offer better lake access to faculty and students in the biological, chemical, and environmental sciences. The scope of research will be increased by gaining access to the entire lake, reducing transit times to research sites, and providing a stable, up-to-date platform for high-quality research. Improving and expanding research capabilities on Lake Champlain will generate new knowledge in several disciplines about the lake itself, the region, and freshwater lakes in general.

This project will also add a sophisticated research vessel with advanced capabilities and greater capacity to the research infrastructure on Lake Champlain, enhancing interdisciplinary inquiry not only for more Middlebury College students and faculty, but for other members of the local educational community. The new facility will:

  • enable faculty at other local colleges to give students hands-on training in research techniques that would otherwise be unavailable
  • provide research training to local K-12 teachers
  • offer outreach to “land-locked” institutions and organizations in Vermont that need lake access
  • advance development of a nautical archaeology program in the Lake Champlain basin
  • produce data with environmental benefits to the region

With this new research vessel, Middlebury College will prepare highly qualified candidates to enter professions in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields. Many of our students earn advanced degrees in ocean sciences, and the new facility will help Middlebury College to carry on and expand that tradition.

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