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A New and Improved Think Tank

Dana Point's Ocean Institute has a grand opening to thank those who worked on its $16.5-million expansion project.

October 21, 2002|Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writer

The Ocean Institute in Dana Point capped a weekend of grand-opening events with a Sunday "family fun day" that included educational displays, surf bands and a brunch smorgasbord.

The event, which was attended by about 1,300 people, was a thank-you to members, donors and volunteers who worked on the waterfront facility's $16.5-million renovation and expansion that is expected to attract more than 135,000 students annually.

Officials at the 34,000-square-foot nonprofit institute -- five times larger than the old facility -- worked for two years with teachers to create programs that augment curriculum guidelines of California public schools.

"We want [students] to feel like they are young scientists," said Deidre Cavazzi, who writes lesson plans for the institute.

"This is definitely not a place where they will listen to a lecture. They are in charge here. We are just facilitators."

From Monday through Friday, the institute will cater to school groups. On the weekends, it will soon offer public tours.

The Ecology Learning Center, with its discovery pool of starfish, crabs, sea snails and other tidal animals, is one example of how the refurbished facility will educate the minds of children in kindergarten through third grade.

Young visitors can surround themselves with silver opal-eye perch by putting their heads into the opening of a bell-shaped fish tank. They also can see scientific tools such as cameras and microscopes, and films showing how difficult it is for a starfish to cling to a rock.

Children's literature, including "House for Hermit Crab" by Eric Carle and the poetry book "In the Swim" by Douglas Florian, also is read in the room to establish the relationship between fact and fiction, Cavazzi said.

An area dedicated to surfing teaches electricity, weather and matter to older children.

Steve Hillenburg, the creator of sea-inspired cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants, and Tom Kenny, who does SpongeBob's voice, were signing books Sunday at the institute. Hillenburg worked as an institute instructor from 1986 to 1989.

He said the renovation "is certainly going to help them to be more effective in helping students appreciate the ocean."

The new institute replaces one that attracted about 78,000 students annually. That facility was torn down last year after years of debate about what to put in its place.

On Sunday, visitors said they were pleased that the new facility is more educational and less entertainment-oriented.

"I'm looking forward to be able to come down here and have some good learning experiences," said Sue Wood, a Laguna Niguel mother of 5- and 10-year-olds.

"We need more of these normal-type activities. A theme park would have brought the area down."

Cliff Wassmann, a 15-year volunteer, brought his daughter to a tank of moon jellyfish.

As she pressed her nose against the glass, Wassmann said the expansion "is probably one of the best things to happen to Dana Point.

"It's so nice that someone didn't just build [a theme park]. This fun here is education."

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