This school year each of Maine’s nearly 16,000 fifth or sixth graders will be doing some detective work at the new Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland.

The GMRI, which officially opened Oct. 1, is committed to busing every upper level elementary student in Maine to the Commercial Street campus, where each will do the work a scientist does.

It’s the education piece of the GMRI’s three-part mission: science, education and community.

“We want to interface with the public and work with various audiences, especially with students,” said Alan Lishness, Chief Innovation Officer.

A great deal of thought about understanding the ways children learn led to the design of The Sam L. Cohen Learning Center.

First, what not to do.

Studies show that a visitor to a science museum stops, on average, for 30 seconds at each exhibit. In this quick passive viewing, the visitor learns very little.

So the planners determined to fully engage students in compelling ways for two and a half hours.

But which students?

“We originally thought our audience would be high school students,” said Lishness, “because kids come into middle school interested in math and science – and somehow lose interest.”

Duke Albanese, Maine’s former Commissioner of Education, and Francis Eberle, director of the Maine Math and Science Alliance, suggested they aim for students just before they reach middle school.

The idea is to build on the “natural scientist” in every 10- and 11-year-old and keep that interest growing. The program developed using techniques that build on how this age group learns best.

For two and a half hours, students will experience what is to be a marine scientist trying to solve a mystery. This year’s mystery: “Why is the X fish important to the Gulf of Maine?”

There are no books, no teacher at a blackboard, no sheets of fill-in-the-blank, no sitting at a desk.

Instead, groups of four students will work together at one of the four Learning Venture Stations (LVS) to figure out different problems. In their investigations, students will be modeling the scientific process of observation, recording, hypothesis and testing, The stations will have various artifacts to test their hypotheses.

At LVS One, students must figure out what the X fish eats. They will dissect a dead X fish and work with the computer station to analyze the contents of its stomach.

Students at LVS Two choose one of four fishing vessels shown on the interactive monitor to fish on. They meet the captain and “go fishing.” Students will have information on each vessel’s capacity and cost to operate and use it along with information on fish location and from weather reports. They will factor in various data to decide how and where to fish.

At LVS Three, students will use materials and the monitor to figure out characteristics of the X fish.

Finally, LVS Four is a cylindrical tank, which will hold many live X fish for the students to observe and work on questions.

All the information students are feeding into their computers is organized by the “Wizard” who works in the large booth overlooking the two story learning center. The Wizard processes the information as the students develop it. At the end of the visit each student walks away with a CD made by the Wizard documenting his or her unique experience at the GMRI.

Students and the Institute will keep in touch via the Internet. The Wizard, with help from a computer program, will be able to send a student information in subjects in which the student has shown interest. Students can be connected through the website built for each of them.

If two or three students in each group show particular interest, they can keep track of a blog showing what a marine scientist is thinking and doing every day.

The first groups of fifth and sixth graders are scheduled to arrive in late October. Lishness and his crew have prepared by bringing groups of campers over the summer to try out the program. This fall, several groups of fifth and sixth graders also have gone through the program, giving feedback on what works well and what needs fine tuning.

For summers, Lishness said, the institute is looking at ways of developing programs for families and for groups of teachers.

“We want to contribute to their elementary education in science literacy,” said Lishness. He said that elementary teachers don’t get a lot of science education training, and it’s wrong to blame the teachers if many of them are reluctant to tackle science.

“Our lofty goal is to get everyone one of those fifth or sixth graders here,” said Lishness, “and we will create the mechanics so that if they want to come we will be here.”