“The world is our classroom,” reads a sign on a bus used by St. George area schools for its alternative education students.

Part of that world is the study of aquaculture at Herring Gut Learning Center in Port Clyde, where middle school students raise and sell seed oysters, Atlantic salmon and brook trout. These kids aren’t just learning marine biology. They learn to work together in a business with a real budget, a real product. It’s a real introduction to something that might provide a career as wild fisheries decline and even disappear.

Eighth grader James Lewis, son of a Cushing lobsterman, said just being at the five-year-old, hands-on classroom meant a lot to him. “I love it. In regular school, I just sat there being bored.” The other day he was working on a water filtration system for raising oysters with classmate Andrew Davis of Thomaston. “I’m going to try to get into marine biology when I get to college,” Lewis said.

It’s the fifth year of the program, and teach Jim Masterson praised the center’s new $500,000 headquarters, a cape-style building overlooking a cove. Masterson said girls and boys learn teamwork, language skills, math and personal responsibility, in the process of running their aquaculture business. The building features labs with microscopes, offices, a greenhouse and a lobby boasting a large painting of a fishing dory by N.C. Wyeth. The center receives from MBNA, and recently won a $60,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In its early stages, Herring Gut was associated with the Island Institute, but is now on its own.

Herring Gut Learning Center – recalling Port Clyde’s original name – is the brainchild of Phyllis Wyeth, wife of artist Jamie Wyeth. The Wyeths own several nearby islands and a couple of mainland homes on the St. George peninsula. Down hill from the new building is Marshall Point Sea Farm, another Wyeth project and home to Phyllis Wyeth’s educational program until separate quarters were set up. Sea Farm director Karl Eschholz said his business and the school programs go hand in hand; he is gratified to help children learn about aquaculture. His counterpart at the learning center is Jeff Chase; they both studied biology while students at Unity College.

The Sea Farm has sold market-size surf clams to Rockland’s CafĂ© Miranda, and to Black Gull Grill. But the biggest part of the business is seed oysters: 110 million raised and sold in 2001. Orders range in size from 100,000 to 20 million oysters. Students work with these figures, and Eschholz said “I’ve never seen kids so excited about math.”

Phyllis Wyeth, who frequents the center in her wheelchair, said her learning center is a natural outgrowth of her environmental commitment and association with the sea. For years a director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, she remembers growing up on Cape Cod when bluefish were plentiful; now they’re gone there. She and Jamie lived on Monhegan Island where they watched the fishery decline. Yet many of the children who attend the center are from fishing families; she would like them to have a chance to continue the tradition by making a living in aquaculture.

By understanding how to grow algae to feed seed oysters, by understanding how oysters breed and develop, young people “are learning all the skills,” Wyeth said. “What’s going to happen in 100 years? We’d better prepare.”

Besides the SAD 50 (St. George-Thomaston area) students, Herring Gut serves students from the Camden area, and center director Jeff Chase said he would like to see its reach extended to more students elsewhere. “We’re growing at a great rate,” he said. “We will be hiring an additional educator.” He is currently assisted by Tansy Wagner, who works directly on projects such as growing algae to feed young oysters, and by volunteers such as Linda Haupt, who help out in a variety of ways.

Scores of local residents attended two recent open houses at Herring Gut. The center welcomes visitors, and can be reached by calling (207) 372-8677 or by e-mail: hglc@gwi.net.