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Ecology, Ninja Style

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Beginning this spring, elementary-school students in Maine will get a lesson about freshwater ecology from four pizza-chomping, karate-chopping, totally rad instructors--the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

And although supporters of the program say it will only draw on children's considerable interest in the Ninja Turtles to teach them something valuable about real turtles, parents and educators critical of the venture have questioned the ap,18lpropriateness of the program's use of superheroes who employ violence to solve their problems.

The program was created by Alan Lishness, director of the Gulf of Maine Aquarium Project, with the blessing of--and a $45,000 donation from--Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Ninja Turtles and a native of Maine.

The project will consist of a traveling show for 2nd- through 4th-graders to teach them about the seven species of turtles indigenous to Maine and the freshwater habitat necessary to sustain the creatures.

Mr. Lishness understands the reasons for what he calls "the polarity of parents" on the issue, but also explains why he thinks the board of the Portland aquarium reached a consensus to support the program.

"The reaction [to the Ninja Turtles] ranges from 'I hate them for using violence to solve problems' to 'They have empowered my child,"' Mr. Lishness says.

"[But] we're not going to let the turtles use weapons," he adds. "We took the weapons away and replaced them with the tools of scientific inquiry--dip nets, microscopes, and magnifying glasses."

Mr. Lishness also notes that the teenage terrapins will eschew their usual turtle-speak and that the materials used in the program will be gramatically correct, down to the motto written on the van that will carry the program from school to school: "If you want to save the Earth, you have to learn about turtles."

The program will be tested at Sacarappa Elementary School in Westbrook in late March and early April and then taken statewide.

The school response has been "unbelievable," Mr. Lishness says, adding that the response indicates to him that "clearly educators have either ignored or resolved [the debate]."--wm

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