by Anne Pyburn Craig
With its proud mountain and broad sparkling bay, it seems only natural that Beacon has emerged as an epicenter of Hudson River protection and preservation. It was here, in 1966, that Pete Seeger took it into his head to build a boat that would become the flagship of the environmental movement. Today it could be said that Seeger’s dream of convincing people to care about the river has come true beyond his wildest imaginings: his pretty little home city is nurturing a world class center for environmental education.
The location is no accident, nor is it based on sheer sentiment. When former New York State Governor George Pataki sought to establish an education and research center like no other, focused on rivers and estuaries, a panel of over 60 experts chose Beacon from a list of over 20 nominated communities. The Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries (BIRE) hit the ground running and continues to define cutting edge water science, a field that might well be considered a matter of life and death.
A REON seonsor floating in the Hudson River near Beacon.
Photo courtesy of BIRE.
The original Riverkeeper John Cronin served as a founding director and first CEO. It was with his help that the Institute reached out to IBM for help in designing a $100 million River and Estuary Observation Network (REON). From its floating sensors along the Hudson and the St. Lawrence, REON provides real-time scientific data, “continuous monitoring of physical, chemical, biological and atmospheric data…via an integrated network of sensors, robotics, mobile monitoring and computational technology,” as per BIRE’s website. Among other goals, the Institute is striving to make REON technology affordable, which will herald a new day for water scientists around the world.
REON data informs the work of researchers, scientists and students, providing arguably the most intimate portrait ever of water in its natural habitat. In 2011, BIRE announced a partnership with Clarkson University of Potsdam (motto: Defy Convention!) an institution that regularly lands on top-college lists. The alliance allowed BIRE to beef up educational offerings for everyone from grad students to tweens, and provides Clarkson students and professors with an incomparable lab.
BIRE and Clarkson also partner with Hudson River Sloop Clearwater to offer RiverU, a six-credit undergrad program that students have described as “inspiring,” “unforgettable,” and “super FUN!”
Midway through the Institute’s birth process, concerns were expressed by the people who love Pier 26 in TriBeCa, where there had been dreams of establishing an Estuarium since the 1990s. Some feared that Pataki’s ambitious plan for Beacon meant that theirs was doomed. But not everything is a win/lose situation among people of good will. Clarkson, BIRE, Clearwater, and the New York Hall of Science have announced plans to refurbish Pier 26 as a world-class estuarium in its own right, beginning in 2017.
Cronin has handed BIRE’s reins over to former Clarkson dean Timothy F. Sugrue, and is now a Beacon Institute Fellow at Clarkson University, leading a collaborative effort between BIRE, Clarkson, and Pace University ( where he is also a senior fellow and is designing an interdisciplinary environmental and policy studies program). As the first-ever Beacon Institute Fellow, he’ll head the Policy and Information Innovation Project, implementing high-tech innovation “to improve and reform water policy, and train the next generation of environmental leaders.”
Besides graduate education, cutting-edge research, and policy advocacy, BIRE offers the public intelligent good times. There’s an evident understanding of the emergent truth that science, technology, engineering and math go better with art involved, and no losing sight of the fact that what started this whole river-saving endeavor was nothing less than passionate love. The Institute maintains a Main Street gallery, bookstore, and gift shop that welcomes the public to river-related exhibits, openings, author events, and lectures.
And down on the waterfront, near DIA and Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock, BIRE has established the Center for Environmental Innovation and Education. The Center welcomes visitors to the waterfront and offers a varied menu of public programs: there are expert-led “Walks and Talks” along riverfront trails and other events that utilize the “surround-sound video-conferencing, broadcasting and simulcasting capabilities, as well as a THX sound system and professional theatrical lighting.” The building, certified LEED Gold standard, is in part a renovated historic brick structure.
Not everyone might recognize the stamp of a slender guitar man with a beautiful smile on the very latest in STEM education, or expect a firebrand like TIME Magazine Hero For The Planet Cronin to work smoothly with major corporations. But what could be more Seeger than super-fun science? Getting everyone working together. It’s amazing what can happen when you let that little light shine.