PROVO -- With a handful of classmates cheering her giggly bravura, Maria Morales squirmed and squealed as a good-size hermit crab scampered across the palm of her outstretched hand.

Morales, a ponytailed third-grader, was the only student in her group to hold the crustacean during a marine-life lesson Monday at Westridge Elementary School. The crab was plucked from a tank and placed on her hand by Brent Anderson, the driving force behind an outreach program that gives children from a dry, desert state a look at life under the sea."You're the bravest one so far, Maria," says Anderson, president of the Living Planet Aquarium, which sponsors the traveling "Aquavan" project. "No one ever wants to hold the crab."

For six months, Anderson and three other biologists have transported the wet and wild sea creatures to about 40 Wasatch Front schools. By year's end, some 15,000 students in Utah schools will have been given the chance toplunge their hands into tanks to touch various aquatic species.

The free exhibit now boasts two additional attractions. A newborn bamboo shark was shuttled in the van to a school for the first time last week, and a baby octopus, which was a little shy and hid under rocks for most of the day, made its debut Monday.

"We're being careful with the octopus," said Monique Turner, who was in charge of explaining about mollusks to the curious third-graders. If scared, the octopus will squirt poisonous ink, killing the other animals in the tank.

"He's really scared so you can't move around a lot at this tank."

Aquavan is an educational arm of the yet-to-be-constructed $49 million Living Planet Aquarium. Groundbreaking on the proposed 10,000-square-foot facility that will hold more than 1 million gallons of water is planned for October. Construction is scheduled to end in May 2002.

Until the project reaches completion, Anderson is cultivating interest by making treks to schools and setting up marine biology centers. For now, between dates at schools, the sea urchins and the aquarium's other creatures, have found a home at a holding facility at Pleasant Grove High School.

Lessons learned during the exhibit also are tied into the state's science curriculum at the third-grade level, he said. Plans are being made to expand the program to younger and older audiences.

Anderson says he "can't put his finger on" the fascination children have with the aquatic animals. He finds that many kids are hooked on the television show "Animal Planet" and the Discovery channel.

"Maybe it's because it is a mysterious environment. The animals are different than what you'd see on land," he said. "I mean, kids are wary of putting their hands on a shark. The hands-on environment helps. They make a connection with the animal."

But Anderson couldn't convince Waylon Huffman to hold a hermit crab just for fun. When Anderson asked him if he would stick out a cupped hand, the 9-year-old responded: "I'd hold it for five bucks."