Published September 30. 2013 4:00AM
Montville -Nineteen fifth-graders surrounded Project Oceanology instructor Caitlin Lewis on the deck of Envirolab III one morning last week, jockeying for a good view of the net they had just reeled in.
The children were fascinated by their catch, shouting things like "Fishies come here!" and "Fishy is mad!" as they struggled in the net. But once Lewis loosened the net enough to allow the fish to flop out, the students drew back and shrieked in horror.
Diane Monahan's fifth-grade class from Charles E. Murphy Elementary School was participating in one of Project Oceanology's boat programs, during which students test water samples and learn how to identify marine species. On Wednesday, the boat sailed to the area where the Thames River meets the Long Island Sound.
School districts that purchase yearly memberships in Project Oceanology can send their students to the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton for a variety of hands-on experiences in marine science and ecology.
The Montville School District was a founding member of Project Oceanology when it started 40 years ago, but the district took a short lapse from membership for budgetary reasons. Montville rejoined the program this year for $30,000, an expense the Board of Education was able to make room for even though there was no increase in the budget.
Each school district that participates in Project Oceanology can customize its experience by focusing on different program offerings and grade levels. Montville chose to focus on its fifth-graders, in part because ecology is part of the fifth-grade curriculum.
Monahan is excited about the return of Project Oceanology, which she said enriches the classroom experience.
"It creates such a great dialogue in the classroom when they have something to associate (the lesson) with," said Monahan, who likes to be able to remind the students of how the day's lesson fits in with activities they participated in on Envirolab III.
Over the past few years, Montville has been sending a few students to participate in a statewide conference about marine science, said Monahan. She said she's glad the entire fifth grade is able to participate in hands-on science activities.
"It's exciting to teach it when they get excited," she explained.
Most students said after the field trip that the species identification - or, in their words, "touching the fish" - was their favorite part of the experience. After Lewis removed the catch from the net and placed the animals in shallow tubs of water, she taught the class about the characteristics of the different species they had caught.
Of particular interest to the kids was what they originally believe to be a stingray, but Lewis informed them that it was actually a skate. She held the creature aloft, its mouth opening and closing listlessly as she explained to the students how she knew it was a female skate.
The kids also focused in on a small, gelatinous blob that tumbled into one of the tubs while Lewis freed some fish that were tangled in the net. They passed the dead jellyfish from hand to hand, peering at it with a mixture of wonder and revulsion.
The net also contained what Lewis said was probably an entire small school of porgies, a sliver fish with spines protruding from the top. The class measured the porgies and tossed most back, but five were saved for the classroom saltwater aquarium back at the elementary school.
Lindsey Beavan recording the lengths of the porgies on a clipboard as her classmates shouted over each other to make sure their fish's size was recorded - "Eight centimeters! Five centimeters! Sixteen centimeters!"
Beavan volunteered for the task because she didn't want to touch the fish. She enjoyed the lab portion of the field trip more, during which her group climbed a ladder to join the captain in the upper level of the ship and learned about navigational equipment. She bragged to her classmates about getting to see the captain's quarters as they reached into the tubs of water to stroke the fish.
Another Project Oceanology instructor on the ship, Chris Dodge, split the class into six teams to measure different characteristics of the water: salinity, density, temperature and dissolved oxygen, among other things.
Some kids sat at tables to measure the pH of water samples while others leaned over the side of the boat and lowered devices such as the black-and-white disk into the water.
Each group recorded data from their experiments, which Dodge later helped them interpret.
"This is real, authentic science that we're doing," said Lauren Rader, the chief instructor at Project Oceanology. Fifth grade is the youngest age taught in the group's school programs, and older students can sign up for more intensive experiences.
Schools can send their students to participate in more extensive lab experiences before or after the boat ride or on shoreline trips. Project Oceanology also offers after-school and summer programs for students to become involved in research projects.
Montville has had four students apply for the district's two available spots in the 10-week after school program, which is open to students who have completed seventh grade. Rader said that program will walk students through the steps of scientific research and ask each participant to present their results when the research has concluded.
Back on Envirolab III, Victoria Cummins, Dylan Meyer-Reddy and Dominic Aquitante were participating in a more kid-friendly research project. They had been instructed to classify the color, texture and smell of a sample of sediment from the ocean floor.
Cummins prodded the muddy sample with her finger and declared it halfway gritty but also sticky. When she lowered her nose to the sample, she said it smelled like seaweed and salt.
"It smells like poop to me," argued Meyer-Reddy.
After the group recorded their findings, Meyer-Reddy leaned against the edge of the Envirolab and surveyed his surroundings.
"I wish I could live on a boat," he said wistfully.