The Gulf of Maine Research Institute is getting its largest grant ever from NASA to update and expand its climate change education program for Maine schoolchildren. The $6.5 million grant, announced Tuesday, will be used for the institute’s learning laboratory program – called LabVenture! – and shared with national science education partners.

Each year 10,000 fifth- and sixth-graders visit GMRI’s Sam L. Cohen Center in Portland to learn about the Gulf of Maine. The entire trip is free and allows the children to take on the roles of scientists and fishermen, learning how species such as lobster and cod interconnect and how human activities affect them. The role of weather in the broader issue of climate change is a key education point.

They also focus on the effects of warming waters on the ecosystem – data show that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s bodies of saltwater.

Leigh Peake, GMRI’s chief education officer, was ebullient as she described what the grant would mean for the institute, which aims to improve ecoystem management through research and education.

The technology LabVenture! is using now is 10 years old and needs to be updated, she said. But more than that, GMRI and its partners – which include the Maine Discovery Center in Bangor as well as a number of small museums and discovery centers in New England – will be able to “dig in and take a deeper dive” in how they educate children, Peake said.

“Whether it’s part of being a responsible citizen or as they enter many different careers, understanding data is going to be a hugely important skill for these students,” she said. “The theory is, let’s give kids an increasingly rich experience and show them what statistics can do.”

They’ll be working on a curriculum for teachers to use after their visits with their class, deepening the children’s understanding of and appreciation for using data, specifically NASA data to explore weather and climate. The overhaul of the Cohen Center will allow the program to be Web-accessible for classrooms and informal science education organizations nationwide, while allowing educators to localize the program to match their regions.

One of the partners in the grant is Stanford AAA, a lab at the California university that studies how children learn and has devised a gaming tool to assess how much they take away from experiences like LabVenture!

The new program should be in place by the time the 2018-2019 school year starts, Peake said.