NEWPORT - Remodeled, reorganized and full of new exhibits, the public wing at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport is taking on a brand-new role as one of seven Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers across the nation.

The OSU facility, with its perennially popular touch pools and its snazzy new interactive exhibits, is the latest marine science center to join in the regional educational efforts of a vast partnership known as Coastal America.

Coastal America grew out of plans for this year's International Year of the Ocean observance. The partnership links a dozen federal agencies with hundreds of state and local governments, non-profits, universities and conservation groups in an effort to help Americans identify, understand and do a better job of dealing with the problems of the nation's coasts.

Roughly half of the nation's population lives within 50 miles of a coast. The number is expected to grow to 70 percent by 2050. That means increased pressures on fragile coastal ecosystems and a massive job for those charged with stewardship over those systems.

Public awareness is crucial, and the Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers are the partnership's effort to make coastal residents - and visitors - more aware of the coastal environment.

The OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center public wing has been providing that kind of information for decades, initially as a modest aquarium where kids could get a close-up peek at living sea urchins, anemones and a long succession of octopi.

After the opening of the nearby, private Oregon Coast Aquarium, the OSU facility refocused its mission toward science, and hands-on exhibits that explain basic scientific concepts and the work of researchers housed at the center.

A multimillion-dollar remodeling job later, the public wing also has new management: Oregon Sea Grant, the OSU-based ocean research, extension and education program, has assumed responsibility for the wing, its educational programs and its bookstore.

The public wing is in good company. Other Coastal Ecosystem Learning Centers to date are the Florida Aquarium, Monterey Bay Aquarium, Mystic Marinelife Aquarium, New York Aquarium for Wildlife Conservation, National Aquarium in Baltimore, New England Aquarium and the Texas State Aquarium.

The network is envisioned as a way for all those involved in coastal public education --federal, state, local and private entities alike - to pool their creative resources and find new ways to teach people about the ocean and coastal environments, and the plants and animals that live there.

The federal, state and agency partners, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Coast Guard to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, will provide publications, speakers, lesson plans, films, exhibits and other materials to help the centers do their jobs.

The OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center's public wing is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Monday until Memorial Day; summer hours through Labor Day are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week. Admission is free, but donations are accepted.

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Linda Conser, 541-867-0159