Ever been tickled by a living fossil?

Pet a live shark?Dilworth Elementary students did just that Thursday, without ever leaving the school.

The Salt Lake third-graders, along with some first-grade and kindergarten classes, helped The Living Planet Aquarium unveil its "Aquavan" statewide educational outreach program. The Aquavan will transport aquariums to Utah schools to introduce landlocked Utah students to the sea.

"It's interesting because we can learn more about things in the ocean and how they survive," said third-grader Natalie Lynn.

Kids dipped their hands in a shallow shark tank, where a foot-long bamboo shark and horned shark swam into the submerged palm of marine biologist Brent Andersen, president of The Living Planet Aquarium.

Others smiled as "living fossil" horseshoe crabs, whose genealogy spans 300 million years, tickled their fingers. Underbellies of starfish and sea snails got some wows of their own.

"I like to see all the animals and feel them," said student Alyssa Johansen.

The aquariums hinted at the grandeur of the planned Living Planet Aquarium, a $49 million public aquarium to be built in downtown Salt Lake City by May 2002. Its most likely site is the state fairgrounds, Andersen said. The nonprofit, 100,000-square-foot facility is to be the 10th major aquarium in the nation.

The facility will feature a one-acre Amazon rain forest, complete with schools of piranha, Andersen said. It will display more than 10,000 saltwater and freshwater fish native to Utah and Colorado, not to mention a giant shark tank next to which Scout troops can camp.

"Cool!" said third-grader Matthew Romney, already looking forward to the opportunity.

The aquarium hopes to expand outreach programs to include junior curators, junior vets and internships, Andersen said.

But for now, programs center on the Aquavan and lesson suggestions developed to accent the state core curriculum. The program is geared toward third-graders, but officials hope it expands to all grades and college students for possible marine biology studies, said Steve Schulkens, aquarium executive vice president.

Aquavan aquarium critters swim in holding tanks at Pleasant Grove Junior High School when they're not on the road.

"There's only so much you can learn from a book and there's only so much you can learn from a videotape. But when you bring in the real thing, the educational impact is so much greater," Schulkens said.

Dilworth third-grade teacher Marsha McBride is using the aquarium lessons in a science unit about producers, consumers and decomposers. The California native, whose playtime often included the sea, called aquarium officials when she heard of the upcoming facility.

"It's heaven for them to have this be a part of their lives," McBride said.

Andersen only wished he had such an opportunity growing up. Since kindergarten, the Utah native thumbed through sea life books, dreaming of making them his career. After studying at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the marine biologist strived to bring the ocean back to the Wasatch Front.

"Our mission is to create an aquarium with an educational mission," he said. "As a byproduct, it's fun for everyone. Whether you're 3 or 93, everybody loves going to an aquarium."