PORTLAND — The biology of lobsters, lobstering and the various industries the fishery supports is part of the expeditionary learning curriculum for Presumpscot Elementary School third-graders.

But the annual cost of renting a marine touch tank to give the students an up-close look at lobsters was not sustainable. So the school turned to the Drive for Education grants offered annually by Berlin City Auto Group.

The grants, which are offered to schools in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, are designed to “supports our schools in hopes it allows educators to shape future scientists, engineers, artists or musicians,” according to the car dealerships.

In all, Berlin City recently announced grants totaling $14,340, which went to various Portland schools, including a $4,000 grant to Presumpscot Elementary for the purchase of a portable marine touch tank.

Mike McPherson, chairman of the brand ambassadors group at Berlin City, said the company looks for “programs that struggle for funding for a variety of reasons or that offer new and exploratory” educational options.

He said it made sense to support Presumpscot Elementary’s request for a marine touch tank to further student knowledge about a key industry for the state.

McPherson, who grew up in Aroostook County, said he still fondly recalls a field trip he took to the coast while in high school to explore tidal pools.

“It’s ingrained in my memory,” he said. “Giving students access to (marine life) is important to Maine’s history and its future.”

Over the past seven years Berlin City has provided more than $557,000 in funding to schools across the three states. The grants have supported the purchase of library books, interactive whiteboards, music programs, audio equipment, automotive testing equipment and more.

The recent grants to the other Portland schools include classroom books at Lyseth Elementary, support for the recycling program at King Middle, the purchase of butterfly chairs at Lincoln Middle, support for the Cultivating Community gardening program at Hall Elementary, and support for the Special Olympics program at Deering High.

In her grant application, Phyllis Hey, the community coordinator at Presumpscot Elementary, said, “Over the years our third-grade teachers have designed a comprehensive expedition that studies the Maine lobster from a variety of viewpoints.”

The program is now in its seventh year and is one that “former students talk about as a pivotal point in their learning, ” Hey said. “Students have examined such topics as the economics of lobsters and how the industry impacts Portland.”

She said being able to purchase a touch tank “to house lobsters that our students can observe and study … is a critical component to our students’ scientific study of lobsters.”

In arguing for the grant, Hey added that Presumpscot Elementary would continue its focus on lobsters and their importance to the local economy and marine ecosystem, so “our entire student body will benefit from owning a tank.”

In addition, she said, “We anticipate other grade levels finding ways to use the tank in their own expeditions. For example, our first-graders study oysters and also do a spring expedition studying the importance of the salt marsh.”

“As a high poverty school we simply do not have the resources or the budget to purchase this equipment,” Hey said in the application.

In addition to the study of lobsters, the third-graders at Presumpscot have also engaged in field studies that include an excursion on a working lobster boat, a trip to the marine lab at Southern Maine Community College and a tour of the New Meadows Lobster pound on the Portland waterfront.

“As an expeditionary learning school, all students engage in learning expeditions that are challenging, meaningful and build character,” Hey said in the grant application. “We are grateful to Berlin City for this opportunity for funding.”

Hey this week said the school will use the grant to purchase a Sea Bus portable educational marine tank built by Marine Ecological Habitats in Biddeford.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

A grant from Berlin City Auto Group’s Drive for Education will allow Presumpscot Elementary School in Portland to purchase a Sea Bus portable marine touch tank, similar to this one.