MYSTIC —  Mystic Aquarium has officially opened its $10 million research and education facility, the Milne Center for Ocean Science and Conservation.

The two-story contemporary building houses the Sea School, an accredited preschool accommodating 31 students, that was previously located in the aquarium’s main building. The 18,000-square-foot structure also contains interactive classrooms, conference rooms, offices and an area for an art gallery.

Still under construction on the first floor is the 6,000-square-foot aquaculture and invertebrate research facility, which will be equipped with 15 tanks containing 68,000 gallons of water and used to breed exotic and ornamental fish.

“Breeding our own fish rather than using wild capture is a very important conservation initiative and puts us at the forefront of other aquariums,” Stephen Coan, president and CEO of the aquarium, said Thursday.

Expected to open in December, the aquaculture and research facility will be connected to a new surgical suite and veterinary medical facility.

“We will be able to operate on the smallest fish to the largest whale,” Coan said. “When we bring marine mammals that are injured — and we do rescue about 200 animals a year — we can move them very easily from the rescue pool into the surgical suite, which will be connected to our renovated facility so our staff can go easily between the two.”

The new building also provides conference space, which the main building never had, and larger, technology-savvy classrooms for 21st-century learning.

“All of these rooms are high-tech, interactive and equipped with smartboards,” Coan said. “It’s important because our curriculum is going to be digitized so that students coming here will still be involved with hands-on activities, but a lot of the learning will be digital learning, using smartboards and iPads.”

Coan said that digital learning increases accessibility for all types of learners at all ability levels — dovetailing with the aquarium's goals.

The “wet classrooms” are equipped with touch tanks containing sea creatures and sinks needed for doing experiments. However, some of the traditional teaching activities, such as squid dissection, will be done digitally. Students will wear virtual reality glasses and work in groups, interacting with the smartboards and screens.

“With digital learning, there’s actually a lot more you can do. Students can understand the labeling of the parts and see the connections between and among organs in a three-dimensional way that really enhances the experience as opposed to the old-fashioned way,” Coan said. “There is no reason to be dissecting animals anymore.”

Moving the preschool from the main building also opened up about 10,000 feet of space where a new exhibit will be installed, Coan said.

“In the spring we’re going to have an augmented reality exhibit, which will be all about the Arctic, and it will put people into the environment where they will be able to interact with walruses and polar bears and other species from the Arctic,” he said.

Coan said the aquarium reaches 800,000 people annually through attendance and 200,000 people through conservation and education programs.

“Of that, last year we had over 50,000 citizen scientists engaged in coastal restoration work, animal population counts and other conservation endeavors,” he said.

He said the aquarium has a team of 15 scientists who also have faculty appointments at University of Connecticut, Avery Point.

“Our science research ranges from marine mammal to aquaculture to the health and biodiversity of Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay,” he said. “So this facility gives us the space and the room to bring those programs together along with new classrooms for education and aquaculture facility.”

The new building, which opened Friday, is the result of 15 years of planning and refining. “It really speaks to our very focused mission — it’s part of our long-term strategy called one ocean, one mission,” Coan said.

He said his team took a scientific approach when they considered programming for the building and how it was designed, so that "science is at the center." But there is also a lot more emphasis on public meeting space and gathering people as opposed to laboratory space, he noted.

“The building is really the culmination of a lot of work to bring focus to our mission as Mystic Aquarium — conservation, research and education,” Coan said.

Tours of the aquaculture facility will be available in the fall.

The center is named after Carol and George M. Milne Jr. Coan has said they have been stalwart leaders and supporters of the aquarium for two decades. George Milne, chairman of the aquarium's board of trustees and a senior partner with Radius Ventures LLC, a venture capital firm, donated $1.5 million toward the project and was a leader in the design of the building.

chewitt@thewesterlysun.com

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