Tugging and hollering, a group of seventh-graders from the Williams School in New London, Conn., hauled an otter trawl laden with flat fish, squid, crabs, and others into the stern of a boat and dumped the creatures in a saltwater trough. Soon many hands were in the trough, gingerly seizing specimens to examine and identify.
''Are that fish's eyes both on the same side?'' asked on-board instructor Donna Towne. ''Yes? Which side? You think it's a flounder?'' More questions followed, including, ''What do flounder eat?'' Students carefully poked through the insides of one to find out. (Most specimens were returned to the water; the flounder was brought back to cook. ''It's part of the food chain,'' Ms. Towne explained.)
Meanwhile students in the bow of the boat were testing the water from which the creatures had come. Some lowered a bottle to obtain water samples from various depths; others used on-board devices for measuring the water's pH value, clarity, and salinity.
The group was aboard Enviro-lab, the 50-foot research vessel of Project Oceanology, a marine-education center in Groton, Conn. The project is housed in buildings leased from the University of Connecticut, near where the Thames River meets Long Island Sound. Close by are beaches, marshes, tidal pools, and islands - as well as a sewage treatment facility, a nuclear power plant, a US Navy base for submarines, and the home port of Connecticut's only commercial fishing fleet. These facilities form the basis for Project Oceanology's lessons on oceanographic methods, marine biology, fisheries, pollution, and maritime history.
Each year some 10,000 students come to Project Oceanology to learn - by using ocean-going and laboratory equipment, visiting lighthouses, charting the growth of eel grass, and frying whelk fritters.
''Project Oceanology programs work,'' said teacher David Scott, ''because staff and kids are involved in real science.'' Mr. Scott, who assists at the project, teaches science at Clark Lane Junior High School in Waterford, Conn. The project employs three full-time instructors, several part-time ones, and licensed boat operators.
According to Dr. Howard Weiss, director of Project Oceanology since its beginning 10 years ago, it not only generates enthusiasm in students but also has managed to survive local budget reductions and dwindling federal funding. Project Oceanology is owned and operated by an association of 22 members (including almost every public school system in southeastern Connecticut, three colleges, several private schools, two state-run technical high schools, and the Mystic Marinelife Aquarium).
''This cooperative approach,'' Dr. Weiss explained, ''spreads the cost and provides stability.'' Few individual school systems, he noted, could afford such facilities; a smaller organization could crumple if a supporter or two got caught in a crunch.
Federal funds like the $59,000 federal grant that launched Project Oceanology are no longer available. Of the project's present $265,000 annual budget, about apiece (depending on the number of students) for operating costs and regular programs: Enviro-lab cruises, lab studies, after-school sessions, and three-week-long summer programs.
The other $100,000 comes from special programs and grants. Project Oceanology publishes marine-study resource guides, runs a research program for high school students of above-average ability, conducts graduate courses for teachers and other interested adults, and offers - on a time-available basis - programs for nonmember schools, senior citizens, scouts, and other groups. A summer tourist program that started three years ago gives the general public a chance to take cruises on Enviro-lab (where they haul nets, use oceanographic instruments, and meet diverse sea creatures, just as the students do).
Margaret Ayer, a Franklin, Conn., school board member who was invited with other board members to go along on an Enviro-lab cruise, said, ''Some of us were reluctant to touch those fish, but we could all see that the kids would certainly want to.'' could cut here, if need be
Project Oceanology currently is seeking funds for a new boat. Enviro-lab (a former Navy launch) is serviceable and sound, but is beginning to run up maintenance bills. Hanging on a Project Oceanology office wall is a scale drawing of a proposed 55-foot research vessel with bleacher seats in the stern; a lab in the bow; and, the staff noted happily, two modern lavatories.