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College of Education > News and Publications > News: April - June 2010 > Carlsen, Berger Begin Sabbatical by Canal Boat to Study Environmental Sustainability

Carlsen, Berger Begin Sabbatical by Canal Boat to Study Environmental Sustainability

Article about Bill Carlsen and Cynthia Berger taking a ten-month sabbatical aboard a canal boat

by Joe Savrock (May 2010)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - A ten-month, 6,500-mile journey on a 19th–century style canal boat would be an accomplishment by anybody’s standards. Bill Carlsen and his wife, Cynthia Berger, are up to the task.

dragonfly.jpegEnvironmental sustainability is the focus of Carlsen and Berger’s 2010-2011 sabbatical leave, during which they plan to observe nature’s ecosystems entirely from a canal boat that the couple purchased last year.

Carlsen, professor of science education and director of the Penn State Center for Science and the Schools (CSATS), and Berger, senior producer at Penn State’s WPSU-FM, expect to depart around June 1 from Macedon, N.Y., to begin a marathon circumnavigation of the eastern United States and Canada. Carlsen plans to pilot the couple’s solar-powered watercraft, Dragonfly, through some of the most interesting aquatic points of the continent to better understand the region’s geography, natural history, and social and technological aspects.

Carlsen and Berger both were trained as aquatic ecologists, and Carlsen has a background in environmental education. He views this sabbatical as a hands-on opportunity to strengthen his understanding of nature, sustainability, and life on the major waterways of the eastern United States. The voyage mixes the diverse elements of science, technology, and sustainability.

Carlsen and Berger bought the craft last year from Mid-Lakes Navigation, a family-owned company that runs charters and hire boats on the Erie Canal. Previously the Honeoye, the Dragonfly is a 41' long steel-hulled canal boat, itself an environmentally sustainable craft thanks to Carlsen’s engineering efforts. In keeping with the overarching ecological theme of the research project, Carlsen retrofitted the vessel with a 1400-watt solar array, computerized controllers, and a large bank of storage batteries hidden in the boat’s lab/workroom. He installed a state-of-the-art electric motor and power transmission gears to drive the existing propeller shaft without using fossil fuels.

carlsen_william.jpgThe boat also is equipped with its original diesel engine, which will serve as a backup propulsion system. “As far as we know, this is the only hybrid diesel–solar powered canal boat in the United States,” said Carlsen. If successful, the trip may be the first environmentally sustainable powered circumnavigation of the North American “Great Loop,” which is bounded by the Great Lakes to the north, the Mississippi River to the west, the Gulf of Mexico to the south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the east.

Carlsen credits much of his ingenuity to his association with Dan Haworth, professor of mechanical engineering. Haworth and Carlsen collaborated on Penn State’s Graduate Research and Education in Advanced Transportation Technology (GREATT) project, which was funded by the National Science Foundation to enhance student understanding of and interest in science, engineering, and technology careers.

Although they have many years of adventures in canoes and kayaks, Carlsen and Berger are novice power boaters. Last summer they took Carlsen’s parents on a self-chartered trip on the Erie Canal, during which they learned basic lock navigation and other boating skills and protocols. From there, the couple enrolled in coursework offered by the U.S. Power Squadrons. However, they readily admit to having much to learn. “But that’s the point,” said Carlsen.

Carlsen and Berger will begin by navigating eastward through the Erie Canal to Lake Ontario, then journey north and west through Ottawa’s Trent-Severn Waterway and Lakes Huron and Michigan. This northern leg should take most of the summer.

By early autumn, the Dragonfly should be heading south—first on the Illinois River, and then along the Mississippi, Tombigbee, and Black Warrior Rivers. During the winter Carlsen and Berger will travel east along the shores of the Gulf Coast and then across Florida via canal. Next spring, they plan to follow the protected Intracoastal Waterway to New York Harbor, north on the Hudson River, and west on the Erie Canal to the original starting point.

The Dragonfly is designed to move slowly, just 4–7 miles per hour. The unhurried pace is ideal for observing nature’s offerings along the way. Carlsen and Berger also plan to take advantage of the interest that their unique vessel stimulates to meet and learn from environmental educators, natural resource managers, scientists, ecotourism operators, farmers, and fishermen.

“We hope to return with fresh ideas and new energy to support my work and my value to the University,” said Carlsen. Planned outcomes, he explained, include material for a new undergraduate environmental education course, as well as protocols for new aquatic research projects that are suitable for secondary students.

Carlsen has set up a blog to capture his experiences and to track the Dragonfly’s location. Follow the couple’s adventures at Berger will be reporting as well, through both print and radio reports, which will be available at