Malika Stuerznickel, a doctoral candidate in anthropology, steers the Inland Seas schooner on the Detroit River.


It’s a warm August day on the Detroit River when members of an LSA class climb aboard the Inland Seas schooner. Together, they will spend the next few hours hoisting, measuring, heave-hoing, puzzle-making, and learning about everything from microscopic life to fish that rival LeBron James in size.

On this floating classroom, they rotate among a variety of stations, assembling a large map of the Great Lakes at one stop. At another, they learn about the history of the fur trade on the river and what the area looked like before tall buildings lined its Detroit shore. They collect plankton, measure the speed of the wind, and learn about water clarity.  

“We have a large lead weight. Don’t lick it,” says Rachel Ratliff, lead instructor with the Inland Seas Education Association. She shows the students a Secchi disk and explains how it is used to measure the transparency of water. Most of the students onboard on this day are from LSA’s Psych 325/American Culture 321—“Detroit Initiative/Practicum in the Multicultural Community.” 

“We are going to lower it until we cannot see it. We are testing the water’s clarity, so my question to you, scientists, is: Is clear water healthy?” The answer is twofold, she and the students decide: We may want clear water in our drinking glasses, but a healthy river needs plankton and other elements of the food web.

The students could learn the same information in a regular classroom, perhaps, but aboard the schooner, they learn how the plankton, the fur trade, the changing winds—all the pieces of the puzzle—fit together.


Reggie Galanto and Hanin Alhubaishi assemble a puzzle of the Great Lakes aboard the Inland Seas schooner on the Detroit River.

A Living Classroom

U-M’s Detroit River Story Lab charters the traditionally rigged tall ship to help run its programs on the Detroit River for U-M students as well as Detroit-area school students in its Skiff & Schooner Program. Classes transform the river into “a vibrant living classroom where students of all ages can experience the river’s rich cultural and environmental heritage for themselves, and discover ways to connect its stories with their own lives and the lives of their communities,” says David Porter, LSA professor of English and comparative literature and director of the Detroit River Story Lab. 

The Story Lab is an interdisciplinary, grant-funded initiative that partners with regional organizations to reconnect communities with the river and its stories. Through collaborative research, education, and engagement projects, the partnerships “amplify marginalized voices and foreground the role of the river and its shores as sites of stewardship, empowerment, and healing,” Porter says.

LSA departments and programs that have been represented on board include American Culture, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, English, History, Psychology, and Semester in Detroit. 

In addition to the Inland Seas instructors, community experts and U-M faculty also teach on topics such as the principles of buoyancy, the resurgence of Great Lakes sturgeon, local tribal histories, and Detroit’s storied role as the Midnight Station on the Underground Railroad.


Faculty member Cathryn Fabian learns about plankton in the Detroit River. She and her class took a trip on the Inland Seas schooner, where they learned about scientific, social, and cultural aspects of the river and the city of Detroit. 

Science and Society

For junior sociology major Becca Meyer-Rasmussen, the schooner trip was “one of the coolest things I did all summer.” She was a member of the class that sailed in early August, a day of warm breezes and views of a bustling city.

“I loved how interactive the trip was from start to finish; I feel like that helped me to learn so much,” Meyer-Rasmussen says. She enjoyed learning about the different kinds of plankton that live in the river, as well as which animals live in the ecosystem. Among other lessons, she and her classmates learned about the river’s giant sturgeons—as long as NBA players are tall—that can live more than 100 years, and the recent return of beavers to the river.

Cathryn Fabian, a psychology lecturer and instructor of the class, said the schooner trip “opened my eyes to the biodiversity of the overall region. I also appreciated the acknowledgement of the Indigenous communities of the area, particularly in ways that they engaged with the river and the Great Lakes as a whole.”

The long arc of history—from the time when Indigenous peoples settled in the area to the present—was evident in lessons throughout the day.

“This experience really helped me to connect to some of the many ways that this river has been an integral part in shaping the history of Detroit,” Meyer-Rasmussen says. 

The Detroit River Story Lab works in partnership with a broad coalition including the Charles Wright Museum, the Detroit Historical Society, the Green Door Initiative, Healthy Kidz Inc., the Inland Seas Education Association, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The University of Michigan has, since 2017, served as a convener of this coalition and a catalyst for the development of this project. Significant funding support has been provided by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and by the University of Michigan, through the Office of the Provost, LSA, and the Detroit River Story Lab.


Learn more about the Detroit River Story Lab

Learn more about the Skiff & Schooner Program


Photos by Leisa Thompson Photography