HOULTON – It’s more than two hours from Houlton to the Maine coast, but to look at the walls in LeeAnn Kinens’ third-grade classroom at the Houlton Elementary School, one would think the Atlantic Ocean was just down the road.
There are lobster buoys and pictures of fishing boats on the walls, a lobster pot by the window and an assortment of shells on a fishing net.
For the past two years, Kinens has involved her class in the Adopt-A-Boat Program, an effort by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sea Grant College to match commercial fishermen with kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms to help pupils learn about marine resources and ecology and the life of a fisherman.
MIT compensates participating fishermen and schools for costs incurred in the program. In some cases, classrooms and fishermen are provided with equipment, such as computers and digital cameras, to aid their correspondence.
More than 60 classes in five New England states are participating. At least 17 classes in nine different towns are participating in Maine.
Kinens’ pupils have teamed up with Proctor Wells of Phippsburg, who operates his fishing and lobster boat, Tenacious, out of Sebasco Harbor.
“They’re intrigued,” Wells said recently while visiting the class. “It’s a whole new world to them.
“They’ve probably asked a thousand questions,” he continued. “They want to know it all.”
During the visit, Wells brought along a live lobster, which the children got a chance to band, as well as mussels, clams and crabs. He showed them photos of his boat while his crew was working, and he showed them how he repairs a ripped net.
Throughout the year, the pupils have e-mailed Wells with a weekly question, to which he responds. He also has taken digital pictures of his boat, which he has e-mailed to the class.
Wells, 45, who holds an associate’s degree in fisheries and marine science from the University of Rhode Island, has been working with pupils in Aroostook County schools for more than a decade after first linking up in the early 1990s with pupils from Sherman.
“I just want to touch base with them, to give them a taste of what we do,” he said. “This program gives people a chance to be exposed to other peoples’ lifestyles.”
Kinens said she has been astonished at how much knowledge her pupils have about the fishing industry. They can label the parts of the lobster and a lobster pot and identify parts of a fishing boat. They can identify different kinds of seaweed and products in which it is used. They have gotten to eat seaweed and lobster.
The information is sinking in, as a quick quiz of the class reveals:
“If [a lobster] loses a claw, it could grow it back and it could be a double,” said Lucas Anderson, pointing out that Wells told the class about a lobster he caught that had four claws on one side.
“You can only catch lobsters that are 5 inches from the eye socket to the carapace,” adds Sara Fitzpatrick.
“[Wells] caught a tuna that pulled [his boat] three miles backward,” chimed in Doug Dickison.
The rest of the group identified the tuna as a big blue sea tuna, which are sold in Japan to be sliced and eaten raw.
“It just amazed me,” said Kinens about the enthusiasm of her pupils. “Most parents have said how excited their kids are.”
One of the more exciting discussions developed when Wells told the pupils in an e-mail that he once pulled up a bomb in his fishing net.
“That started a lot of discussion,” Kinens said with a grin. “We had to stop and learn about bombs and the [Brunswick] Naval Air Station.”
She confessed, too, that the program has “rejuvenated my teaching” as she tries to work aspects of the program into her reading, writing, science and social studies lessons.
On May 27 and 28, Kinens’ class will travel to Phippsburg where pupils will learn more about Wells’ operation, as well as sample seafood and tour the Bath Marine Museum.
The response to the Adopt-A-Boat program and Wells’ involvement with her class has been so positive that Kinens expects to continue it with future classes.
“Even if there’s no funding [from MIT] next year, I look for this partnership with Proctor to last,” she said.