Northern Star: A Floating Classroom

By Heather McKeown, Deckhand, Northern Star
September 29, 2021

Coventry Village School students boarded and learned about Lake Memphremagog.

Deckhand Heather McKeown wrote this story about her experience on board the Northern Star of Newport, Vermont on the waters of Lake Memphremagog where she taught and learned with students and staff from Coventry Village School, volunteers from the Memphremagog Watershed Association, and Lake Champlain Sea Grant educator Ashley Eaton.

Also View Lake Champlain Sea Grant educator Ashley Eaton and the Coventry Village School students and staff in action:


Two days.  Four groups.  Grades: 4 – 8.  Sixty-four young minds have now performed actual science aboard the Northern Star. Yes, you've read correctly. Our Northern Star, besides offering dinner and scenic cruises, has finally introduced another important facet of herself to the Northeast Kingdom. This sturdy entity is now a floating classroom!

On the upper deck, seated neatly around tables, each class faced Ashley Eaton, an energetic teacher from UVM and the Watershed and Lake Education Coordinator with Lake Champlain Sea Grant. Volunteers helped hold up charts and filled in the lesson with truths about the Lake Memphremagog Watershed*. Sustainability, threats, the future, and realities of the present were exposed in a most captivating manner. The young people were engaged and, as someone with over thirty years of classroom experience, myself, I was terribly impressed with the knowledge being imparted and wonderful behavior of the groups. Coventry Village School teachers stood attentively at the stern. The pride and confidence these educators had for their young ones was tangible and well-placed. Is there anything as beautiful as curiosity married to open minds? I think not.

The lesson on zooplankton** and phytoplankton*** incorporated a fine-meshed bag, microscopes, laptops. charts, and one 44-inch television screen. The students gathered lake water in a filtered sack, used pipettes to put drops on a slide, and then observed their findings. Seeing each specimen come to life on the large television screen blew all of us away! The movement of such microscopic organisms was uber-interesting. Let's just say, when you're swimming in Lake Memphremagog, you're never alone. The plant life also amazed. 

Out on the bow and stern, students separated into pairs and utilized a Secchi Disc. When lowered into the lake with a tape measure, turbidity could be determined. When the disc disappeared from view, the number was recorded. After rain and wind stirred up the sediment the instrument became invisible closer to the surface. On the clear day, down it went and could be seen for many meters.

About the pupils: every child was polite. That, alone, was enough to endear them to me. However, it's my pleasure to add the fact that there was such a harmony on board. Each student gave complete attention to all that was being taught. Each instruction, from the before boarding lecture of  Captain Robbie, to those from the teachers was absorbed and respectfully obeyed. 

Todd Rohlen, principal of Coventry Village School, said, “It's great to see the kids out in the field, engaged in authentic science. They've learned how to measure and analyze different aspects of water in the middle of a lake. The boat, itself, is a new experience to many of the kids.”

Indeed, 'the boat' was a first time on the water thrill for many. Yet, none were distracted by the view out of the enormous windows aboard. The very presence of sturdy starboard and port walls seemed to concentrate their focus on learning. As the saying goes: things got real very fast!

A few years ago, while cycling on the bike path, I met Doug Coutes and his Swiss friends. Doug asked if I'd ever heard of the Northern Star. “No,” said I.

He then launched into a seriously passionate story about how, because the vessel was nearly lost to this area, a concerned group had approached the Vermont Federal Credit Union and purchased it. “We are making it into a nonprofit educational facility! We'll have people teaching all about what could hurt or save the lake and everything else related to the area. It's going to be a floating classroom!” 

I immediately told Doug that I wanted in. “Where do I sign up?” At this point I was told to "follow the progress" and to "keep in touch." As the serendipitous life line extends from point A to "dream comes true," I followed, met Rick Derochers, Executive Director of Memphremagog Maritime, begged for employment, and was hired on June 30, 2020, just two days after signing the Covid opt out contract at JetBlue. Then followed a summer of riding around on the lake without guests of any sort. On Memorial Day weekend 2021, the Northern Star began the dinner, brunch, and scenic cruises. The projected maximum of guests for this past summer was set at 2,900. As of this writing, over 6,000 people have boarded our boat. Yet, not until this week has the dream of a nonprofit educational facility come to be a reality. It's just a beginning!

Rick's plans for the Floating Classroom's future: “We'll be bringing in history, mathematics, science, technology, engineering, math, and more. We hope to have groups of educators come aboard.  Each school district, from local to all points beyond, will benefit from what the Northern Star has to offer as a base of operations. They'll take the ideas to their towns for support and to solidify and bring to fruition this vision. Each community will benefit beyond measure. Every person we educate will carry the knowledge forward and our lake, in fact the entire Northeast Kingdom (NEK) and beyond, will be repaid with learning acquired aboard. We'll start with the NEK and then the rest of Vermont, New England, and the world. All involved with this nonprofit educational facility believe in its limitless potential. Bringing in the best educators is a goal. It's all to be shared as this unique floating classroom  broadens in scope. I'm about community connections and partnerships. Education aboard the Northern Star will be inclusive, every age group from kindergarten to AARP members are invited to learn, grow, evolve. Future generations will benefit from what we teach now about the sustainability and history of the lake. The lake and its surrounding community is always evolving. To expand horizons is to move forward. Without such movement minds, as well as bodies of water, become stagnant. This floating classroom will move everyone studying aboard to see and be the future!” 

Indeed, it's this man's faith in the boat that kept the crew on the job this summer. The toil was often grueling and the crew was run off their feet as rough edges were smoothed. Rick was always, always doing ten times more than any of us, so we couldn't admit fatigue, defeat, or anything negative. Thank heavens! The Board of Directors, Rick, the Captain and crew must always work as one to achieve future goals. We must. Together we stand. Divided we fall.

I won't be on tomorrow's cruise with the United Christian Academy (UCA), but Deckhand Candace Chagnon will be aboard. This trip will have only history taught. Ecology of the lake and land has changed over time, that's for sure. Rick will talk about Abenaki, French, and Middle Eastern heritage and how these changed the Northeast Kingdom. So blinking interesting! From the 1700s to the present, the different uses for the lake and surrounding area have been in a constant state of flux. Adaptation, being the key to survival, applies to the Universe and everything in it. Every time I've heard Rick's enthusiastic monologues, I've come away with new information. UCA will learn much but there won't be any tests at the end of the day! 

At the beginning of this story, I said there were 64 students aboard. Not true. Make that 66. Executive Director Rick Derochers and I were flies on the wall and learned much on each of the four separate cruises. There are seasons ahead for the Northern Star. Please, get your schools and communities  interested in this exciting learning opportunity. Picture it: your students aboard a big, safe boat with scientific equipment and a UVM scientist or historian. Such a great time for all! Such a learning opportunity!  Such a privilege.


*Lake Memphremagog Watershed - The area that includes 22 lakes and ponds and extends east to Brighton, south to Craftsbury, east to Lowell and into Quebec, Canada. The water from the aforementioned places ends up in Lake Memphremagog. The major rivers flowing into our lake are:  the Clyde, Black, Barton, and Johns. Three-quarters of the watershed, 489 square miles, is in Vermont. The total watershed is 687 square miles with 198 square miles in Quebec. 

**zooplankton - These are living, heterotrophic organisms, meaning they get their energy from organic substances. They are often microscopic but can also be larger as in the case of jelly fish. They cannot swim against a current.

***phytoplankton - Small living organisms that photosynthesize, meaning they get their energy from the sun. They cannot swim against the current and are most often single cell organisms.



University of Vermont Extension/Lake Champlain Sea Grant educator:  Ashley Eaton

Volunteers: Memphremagog Watershed Association - Dan and Jane Chop, Doug and Lynne Coutes, Patrick Hurley

Coventry Village School staff:  Jaime Comtois (Grade 3-5 Science/Social Studies teacher), Irene Dagesse (Pre-K – 8, Enrichment Coordinator and Science Specialist), Alleson Hamelin (School Counselor), Jessi Sackett (Para Educator), Neha Gratton (Special Educator), Mike Finnegan 'Mr. Finn' (Middle School Science teacher), Kelley Collins (Behavior Support), Chris Kingston (Paraprofessional)