It is 10,954 gross tons, a 24-year-old breakbulk freighter plying the U.S.-Mediterranean trade, one of 369 privately owned U.S.-flag vessels in service around the world.

But to 57 fourth graders in Fond du Lac, Wis., the Elizabeth Lykes is a ship they carry in their hearts, a floating laboratory of science and geography, an ambassador to a wide world filled with exotic marvels.Called the Evans Shipmates, these students at the Evans School in Fond du Lac have "adopted" the Elizabeth Lykes through the Adopt-A-Ship program of the Propeller Club of the United States, a project aimed at educating Americans across the country about the merchant marine, ships and the sea.

Through the Adopt-A-Ship program, children learn about world geography and politics, how a ship works and the increasingly remote world of seafaring. At the Evans School, the Elizabeth Lykes has become an important part of the class's curriculum.

''They understand that in times of emergency, we can't depend on ships of foreign flags," says Betty Coerber, a fourth grade teacher at Evans School, about her students. "We aren't going to have a fourth arm of defense."

But the satisfaction of simple curiosity about the sea and ships is the greatest reward of the project, Ms. Coerber said. "That class corresponds with the officers on the ship," she said; the children ask questions such as, ''What's it like to go through a terrible storm? What cargo did you carry? What do children in that country do?

''They ask questions about life at sea. How did they decide to go to sea? Does anyone ever get sick on the ship?" Ms. Coerber said.

In addition to corresponding with the officers and men of the Elizabeth Lykes, which is commanded by Capt. James Robinson and Capt. Edward Pierson, the fourth graders at Evans put on an annual Lykes Day celebration. This year, the 90th birthday of New Orleans-based Lykes Bros. Steamship Co., the students put on a two-day presentation about the history of Lykes.

According to the steamship company, the Adopt-A-Ship program is an invaluable link between the public and the maritime industry, and also a welcome distraction for its crews. All 28 Lykes ships participate in the Adopt-A-Ship program.

''I think the American public has no concept of what the American-flag merchant marine industry is or does, or how valuable it is to national defense," said Capt. Richard E. Manchester, vice president in the marine division at Lykes. "You get 10 miles from the average seaport, and the public has no idea what the merchant marine is.

"It may be the only program that exists today that's having some effect in this regard," he said about the Adopt-A-Ship program. "I can tell you if you stop anybody on the street in Fond du Lac, they have an idea what the merchant marine is."

Nationally, there are about 280 ships in the Adopt-A-Ship program, according to the Propeller Club. Not all are as well-developed as the Evans School program, which this year received a letter from President Bush praising the project as "a wonderful opportunity for young people to learn about trade, geography, history, economics, languages and fine arts."

Ms. Coerber's project also may be responsible for future seafaring careers. "I might like to go on a ship or be a port captain," said Andy Rose, one of the fourth graders.

Last fall, the class got to visit a Lykes ship in Milwaukee. Andy said he liked the engine room best. "It's got a lot of gadgets. It's really neat," he said. He liked the bridge and the cargo hatches, too.

Ms. Coerber said the bond between ship and students is a strong one. ''Their ship is close to their hearts," she said. "It really is."