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East Lyme — Third-grade students buzzed around Hole-in-the-Wall Beach on Thursday morning, eagerly peering into touch tanks or identifying fish species from the freshwater crayfish to the oysters and mollusks that call estuaries home.
In the stormwater classroom in the beach's parking lot, students checked out catch basins and pipes and smiled as an instructor sloshed water on various surfaces to demonstrate run-off. They listened attentively during a recycling lesson in which they learned jeans could find new life as insulator material and computer parts could be turned into school binders.
"I think it's important for kids to learn, so they can also help protect the ocean," said Eric Johnson, a student at Niantic Center School.
The town's third-graders were participating Thursday in a field trip with lessons on the environment, which organizers said they hope will inspire a new generation of environmental leaders. Students rotated through stations on stormwater, recycling, plants and soil, Long Island Sound species and habitats, and models of the coastal area.
The event complements the third-graders' science curriculum and offers a hands-on learning experience, said Niantic Center School Principal Melissa DeLoreto.
"There's no better way to learn than to actually see it happening," she said.
The event was a joint effort between the schools, the town and various organizations. The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, the Southeastern Connecticut Regional Resources Recovery Authority, the Niantic River Watershed Committee and Save the River-Save the Hills were among those that contributed or volunteered.
"It's so nice to see the community come together to educate our kids," said Diane Swan, a teacher at Niantic Center School, who helped plan the event.
The event grew out of a smaller-scale event that had been held by Niantic Center School in years past. But this year, the event featured more organizations and educational stations. It was also opened up to all of the town's nearly 190 third-graders, with Flanders and Lillie B. Haynes students being bused that morning to Niantic Center School. From there, the students all walked to the beach.
Swan and Victor Benni, a town engineer, plan to continue the event next year and are applying for a grant. As part of the grant, Eric, the Niantic Center student, wrote a letter about the importance of the event in teaching students about the environment.
"It's a great educational opportunity for them, and it looks like they're having a lot of fun," said state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who joined the students at Hole-in-the-Wall.
Bill Scheer, a town engineer, came up with a vision five years ago to design the parking lot at Hole-in-the-Wall to not only manage run-off from 23 acres of downtown Niantic, but also to teach the public about different systems to treat stormwater, such as the hydrodynamic separator that collects trash and prevents it from reaching Long Island Sound.
First Selectman Paul Formica said it's important for a community to take the lead on preventing pollution: "We can show how easy it is to implement these types of environmental solutions," he said.