Down by the Bay: Potomac Science Center Open for Learning

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By Jennifer Lazzo

George Mason University’s new Potomac Science Center on Belmont Bay in Woodbridge has tranquil views of the river, bald eagles flying overhead and a lot of opportunities for learning.

Dedicated in April, the 50,000-square-foot research facility is home to the Potomac Environmental Research and Education Center (PEREC), a coalition of scientists who focus on the Potomac River watershed, local sustainability practices, education and community outreach.

The group has expertise in chemistry, ecology, geology, microbiology and environmental science to study and investigate ways to keep local ecosystems healthy and translate its research into engaging field programs for K-12 students and the community at large.

“We set up PEREC about 10 years ago in anticipation of a physical presence on the Potomac River,” said Chris Jones, director of PEREC and a professor of freshwater ecology. “We gathered a coalition of academic people who had a mutual interest. We wanted to get the students muddy, ‘in boots’ so to speak. One of the niches we recognized was that no university had a facility on the Potomac. It’s been a dream to have a facility [here].”

Jones explained that the center is the only research lab on the Potomac and one of only a few in the world studying tidal freshwater, which is a body of water that is freshwater but at sea level and subject to tides. “This part of the river is tidal freshwater; we have fish that are both typical freshwater fish, like large-mouth bass, and we also have saltwater fish, like shad and rockfish.”

Proximity to the Potomac is key for the scientists of PEREC, who currently are working on projects to access the impact of two upstream wastewater treatment facilities on the river’s aquatic community. From introduction of chemistry and the reduction of algae to the use of pharmaceuticals, the group has seen major improvements in water quality. “It is definitely cleaner than it was 30 years ago,” Jones said. “There are places I still wouldn’t swim, but there was no swimming at all when I started!”

Potomac Science Center, George Mason University

Potomac Science Center

The center was not built overnight. In fact, the concept to have a building on the Potomac originated more than 40 years ago, and actual construction took two and a half years. The building is steadily filling up with both new and existing faculty and students.

In addition to the PEREC laboratories and faculty offices, there are conference rooms, lecture spaces and event spaces available for rent. The areas available to the public are open and airy, filled with light and views of the mouth of the Occoquan River, which empties into the nearby Potomac.

At the center, George Mason University continues its commitment to limiting its impact on the environment. The building earned a LEED Silver certification. There are recycling centers throughout the building, a series of rain gardens that filter stormwater flowing into the Occoquan, and plants on a living wall that are irrigated by stormwater stored in a cistern. In addition, there is a requirement to use china or biodegradable products at events.

The lower level has space dedicated for future exhibits as well as the Discovery Lab, home to Cynthia Smith, professor of watershed ecology and the K-12 education director for PEREC. “I translate the research efforts of our group into hands-on programs for students and the public through activities and exhibits,” she explained. “I want to make our research findings accessible to audiences of all ages. And we have a phenomenal location here in our backyard.”

The university is developing the budget for the interactive exhibits Smith will use to teach young students and the community about the effects of pollutants in streams and rivers on soil, how upstream activities on land affect downstream use and the health of underwater ecosystems.

A stream table used to demonstrate erosion is already in place outside on the center’s patio. It looks like a big concrete trough; add trees made of sticks with roots made of pipe cleaners, sand and water in the form of rain or a stream, and students are able to visualize erosion and sediment deposition. “We want to empower kids, so they can design and test engineering solutions in this model stream. When the volume of water changes, as in a storm, what happens?” Smith said. “It provides authentic learning. It encourages kids to explore their local streams and creeks. It teaches that what happens upstream impacts everything downstream.”

Smith’s passion and enthusiasm for her work is obvious: “Our kids are our future natural resource managers. This experience might be their initial encounter with erosion after a storm, and they have to figure out how best to mitigate it. How do they reengineer the stream to prevent the erosion from the next storm? We keep asking them, how do you make it better? They work across the stream table to figure it out.”

Additional planned exhibits include an augmented reality sandbox, which uses three-dimensional imagery to demonstrate topography and Potomac River aquaria. She is also working with Prince William County Public Works Watershed Management to develop a scavenger hunt that follows the path of storm water from the top of the building through a multitude of stormwater features around the Center.

While timelines for adding more exhibits, international programs and other faculty to the center are still being developed, one thing is certain: the members of PEREC are thrilled to be in a facility so close to where they do their research. “I still have to pinch myself that it happened,” Jones said.

The Potomac Science Center is located at 650 Mason Ferry Ave., Woodbridge. Its public areas are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For additional information, visit potomacsciencecenter.gmu.edu.

Jennifer Lazzo ([email protected]) is a freelance writer and editor who earned a B.A. in technical journalism and political science from Colorado State University. She lives with her husband and twin girls in Montclair.

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