ORONO, Maine — Abbey Ray held the starfish in her hand, and some of her classmates gathered around her as the group stood Tuesday in the University of Maine field house.

“Does it bother you?” asked Karen Young, a fifth-grade teacher at All Saints Catholic School in Bangor.

“He kind of gets [stuck] on you,” Ray responded in a businesslike manner. “[It’s] kind of prickly. Oh, there’s his eye.”

Ray, an All Saints student, turned the starfish in her hands and asked if anyone else wanted to hold it. Ray passed it to a classmate and the group continued to look at the lobsters and crabs in the tank of an exhibit at the 2008 Northern Maine Children’s Water Festival.

About 650 fifth- and sixth-grade students from 13 schools from as far south as China and as far north as Hodgdon attended the biennial event, which seeks to educate students about water and its importance for humans and animals.

Groups rotated between a wide variety of exhibits in the field house, classroom lessons, a musical performance and a trivia contest.

In the exhibit hall, students learned how to fly-fish, how a wastewater treatment plant works and how to test drinking water for dangerous bacteria. They saw a display on cranberries, which depend on water, had a chance to try on a hazardous material suit, and made bubbles.

Mike Dunn of Warren, who runs Marine Education Experience Unlimited, allowed children to hold live marine animals.

It was a good experience for Ray, who wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up.

“I learned that starfish are actually alive and their eyes are at the end of their tentacles,” she said.

Young said the hands-on nature of the festival helps drive home lessons about the importance of water.

“We want the kids to learn something more about the water cycle and how important it is to pay attention to things happening in nature,” she said. “I can see some things we can work on [in the classroom], even looking at our own drinking fountains to see if there’s bacteria. It’s [good for imparting the lesson of] service, too, helping your school, the community, and going beyond that.”

Classroom sessions about subjects such as puffins, well water and trees also drew students. The groups had a chance to participate more in a session called “Getting Buggy,” which was run by John Jemison, a water quality and soil specialist for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

Jemison collected samples Monday evening from two streams near campus. Students counted the amounts of different pollution-sensitive macroinvertebrates in the water to help determine water quality.

“It’s a great exercise,” Jemison said. “If you just talk to them, it doesn’t do it. This is a really great age group, because learning stuff is still cool. They’re particularly inquisitive at this time in their lives.”

Brunswick resident Matt Loosigian, a performer who grew up, naturally, in Waterville, sang and played guitar for his songs about the environment. He got the audience involved in a variety of environmentally themed tunes about subjects such as habitats, algae blooms and energy conservation.

The festival helped Ray realize why water and energy conservation are critical.

“It’s important to save water because we need it to survive,” she said. “If you start with bad habits, like wasting water, when you’re young, you won’t be able to get rid of them when you’re older.”