PORTLAND — Sixth-graders Logan Morin and Anthony Benson steadied their hold on the lobster as it flapped and tried to crawl off a measuring board. The students kept a firm but gentle grip.
“Wait, get a picture of his tail,” Anthony said, holding up the lobster for a good shot.
Their job was to learn about the physical characteristics of the lobster: how long it was, the width of its claws, the size of its tail. Size is important, students said, because lobsters have to be a certain length to be kept by fishermen.
As they measured, fellow Greene Central School sixth-graders Deanna Bugel and Maria Hodgdon took pictures and recorded a video on a computer screen.
The video they made, one that will be viewed by their teacher, shows how lobsters defend themselves, Deanna said. The claws are part of its defense, but so is the shell.
“It’s camouflage,” she said. Lobsters hide from predators by putting their legs under them. “Their shells blend in with the rocks.”
Welcome to LabVenture! at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute on the Portland waterfront. The institute is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to marine research and education. Funded by government agencies and private businesses, the institute hosts more than 10,000 middle-school students from Maine each year.
Schools scheduled to visit this week include Sherwood Heights in Auburn, Guy E. Rowe Elementary in Norway, Phillip Sugg Middle School in Lisbon, Hebron Station School and Agnes Gray School in West Paris.
On Monday, Greene Central School sixth-graders worked in teams at stations where they learned about the characteristics of the lobster, where juvenile lobsters hang out, what lobsters eat and lobster fishing economics: how many traps lobstermen need to be profitable.
One station featured lobsters and fish, lumpfish and sea ravens swimming in glass tanks. Each station had interactive video screens and computers with zoom cameras to help the children study, research and make videos.
“They’re being scientists,” Greene Central School teacher Cheryl Maheux said. “They’re going through the scientific process, making a hypothesis, collecting data, coming to a conclusion.”
Students learned about Maine’s iconic industry in a way that’s interesting to them — through technology, she said. “Everyone’s always done science experiments at science fairs. But technology makes it even better. You can see it,” Maheux said. “They’re very motivated.”
It was the fifth year the institute has welcomed middle-school students to the building where real scientists work.
The goal is to create a science-literate public, said Chief Innovation Officer Alan Lishness. “We live in a culture where science has a prominent role in decisions we make,” including voting choices, he said.
LabVenture! was designed for students, guided by research that showed the average time people view museum exhibits is 30 seconds. It’s tough to learn much in 30 seconds, Lishness said.
When students see live animals, answer computerized questions and make videos for reports, that personalizes their experience, Lishness said. “They don’t goof off.”
Students said they preferred the lab over books and desks.
Blayne Arseneault said visiting the lab would help him. “My dad is a lobsterman,” he said. Blayne plans to spend time on his father’s boat this summer.
Anthony Benson said he liked seeing and handling marine animals “in real life. … Seeing the animals is different than seeing a picture.”