Posted: Sunday, February 26, 2012 12:45 am | Updated: 9:58 am, Sun Feb 26, 2012.

By MICHAEL MILLER Staff Writer |

MIDDLE TOWNSHIP — Long a tourist attraction for families who want a close look at New Jersey’s coastal marshes, the Wetlands Institute is about to see more hard science.

Lenore Tedesco, the institute’s new director, said she plans to expand the institute’s scientific reach from its sprawling grounds on Stone Harbor Boulevard. Tedesco was hired in October to take the place of longtime director Cindy O’Connor, who retired after 27 years.

“The thing I try to do is take applied research and translate that for public understanding and engagement on the issues,” she said.

The institute, a nonprofit organization, conducts conservation projects such as rescuing diamondback terrapins that are hit by cars each spring on New Jersey roads. It conducts summer nature classes, hosts field trips and gives presentations throughout the year.

Its keystone event is the annual Wings ’n’ Water Festival, which was moved this year from September to July 12-14.

Most visitors visit to walk the institute’s grounds and boardwalks, where they can see fiddler crabs scurry over the mud flats at low tide or watch ospreys bring fish back to their nests. The institute offers sweeping views of the marshes between Stone Harbor and the mainland in Cape May Court House.

“Location, location, location,” Tedesco said. “We have the location. It’s in your face. How do I turn that aesthetic appreciation into something more?”

Tedesco comes from a culture of hard science as a professor and director of the Center for Earth and Environmental Science at Indiana University. There, she authored more than 30 papers in scientific journals and lectured internationally on topics including wetlands restoration. She has a doctorate in marine geology and geophysics.

“Make no small plans” was the theme of her mission statement for the institute, in which she talked about using the facility’s resources to tackle topics such as climate change.

“I believe that research drives conservation, and there are distinct and important opportunities for the Wetlands Institute in both areas,” she wrote.

Board of Trustees member Mike Craig, owner of the Washington Inn in Cape May, said Tedesco has a lot of enthusiasm that will translate well to the institute’s goals.

“She’s looking at taking the Wetlands Institute to another level in terms of research, its prominence and its relevance as a conservation and education facility,” he said. “She speaks with authority and knowledge, which is what we wanted in finding a replacement for Cindy O’Connor.”

The institute has been studying ospreys for years, particularly with its popular “nest cams” that give visitors an intimate look at the daily rigors of raising chicks.

Among the first projects will be a study of beach-nesting birds at nearby Stone Harbor Point, home each summer to nesting terns, oystercatchers and federally endangered piping plovers. The institute’s researchers want to take a look at how birds cope with the noise and commotion of beachgoers who frequent the strands.

Tedesco said she would like the institute to pique the interest not just of children with its aquariums and nature walks but adults as well.

“Once parents get past having school-age kids, their attendance drops off. There are a ton of reasons we need to keep adults coming back and expanding their learning,” she said.

Later, when families sit down to a seafood dinner, they can think about the lessons they learned in Middle Township, she said.

“We try to talk about the functions and values of wetlands. Wetlands are a nursery grounds for two-thirds of the commercial food-fish in the world,” she said. “So they can think about that when they sit down and have a nice meal.”