The big Project 4-O

Who knew that the visionary thinking of a handful of educators and concerned citizens, a donated boat hull from the Navy and one grant would turn into a 40-year-old marine science education institution based in southeastern Connecticut that touches 25,000 people a year?

On Saturday, Project Oceanology, or Project O, is celebrating its first 40 years of hands-on education by throwing a birthday party open house for the public at its facilities on the UConn Avery Point campus.

Ceremonies from 11 a.m. to noon include comments by Thaxter Tewskbury, Project O director; Mike Alfultis, UConn Avery Point campus director; and Dr. Howard "Mickey" Weiss, Project O's first director, who served for 30 years; elected officials and Project O students, alumni and board members, followed by birthday cake.

From noon until 3 p.m., guests may tour Project O's labs, the shoreline and the two large Envirolab research vessels. Children will get a taste of hands-on educational activities that follow a treasure map of projects, from touch tanks and scavenging for crabs on the shoreline, to assisting with a squid dissection and water chemistry tests. There will be prizes and give-aways, free pizza and a Groton fire truck on display.

From its humble beginnings in the unheated Morton Plant Boat House on the waterfront, Project O has grown into its own building with teaching labs and hostel accommodations for 56 people; two large research vessels and a fleet of small skiffs; and an annual operating budget of $1.5 million. The Project O building, funded in part by the state legislature, was completed in 2000.

"Project O originated in 1972 when 14 school districts got together, recognizing the tremendous resource of the Long Island Sound and Coastal Connecticut and yet they had no access to it. They said 'We have students who live on the watershed and have no access to getting out on the water to learn about it,'" says Tewksbury, who started as a Project O instructor in 1985.

Recognizing that no individual district had the resources to create the educational access, the schools formed an interdistrict committee, with percentage membership, to get their students out onto the water or to bring the marine life into their classrooms. Membership provides access to Project O's labs, boat trips, in-school programs and classes for students from fourth grade through graduate school.

Project O is a nonprofit organization and is considered a part of its member-school districts; its full-time instructors are state-certified teachers and Tewksbury is required to maintain principal certification.

"Our primary mission is to provide programming to our member school districts and their academic year school programming," he says. "We also provide summer camp, overnight and public programming as alternative sources of funding."

Not all of the original 14 school districts have been able to continue as members, but Tewksbury said some new member schools have joined; while its central core continues to be school districts from the Connecticut River to north of Norwich and east to the Rhode Island border, its tiered fee structure and subscriber programs make it accessible to students across the state.

It also is a regional hub, bringing in students on school programs from New Jersey and New England.

"Our vessels travel, so it's not unusual for us to operate out of the CT DEEP marine fisheries dock in Old Lyme or the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, or go down to New Haven, to work with school groups," Tewksbury says. "We work with students throughout Connecticut."

Project O has pioneered a hands-on, inquiry-oriented approach to science for students that the state has continued to emphasize in the state-wide testing standards. Its courses are designed to help teachers address Connecticut's framework goals and standards. It also offers educators a "lending library" of marine animals for their classroom use, books and audio-visual curriculum materials and its staff is available for teacher development workshops.

"We change our programming to reflect the educational needs of Connecticut's student population," said Abby O'Brien, a staff instructor.

While there aren't individual or family memberships, the public can take in oceanographic and light house boat tours in summer and seal watch cruises in the winter and students from fourth grade up can attend summer camps and afterschool programs. Information and tickets are on the website, www.oceanology.org.

Suzanne Thompson hosts a weekly CT Outdoors radio show on WLIS 1420 AM & WMRD 1150 AM at 12:30 to 1 p.m., or listen to archived show in the On Demand section of www.wliswmrd.net. Reach her at suzanne.s.thompson@sbcglobal.net.

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