On the first day of the Dead Reckoners session, the classroom upstairs in the Maritime Aquarium brimmed with 25 9th and 10th graders from Brien McMahon and Norwalk High School. But in the first few minutes, three students stood out for their beaming smiles.
Hander Michel, Damaris Beltran and Iris Velez - all 10th graders from Brien McMahon - smiled like they had a secret.
The threesome, unlike the others, participated in the program last year when it was a pilot program with just 10 students. They enjoyed it so much that they applied to return.
"Their only complaint was they wanted more kids," said Kerry Johnson, one of the two Aquarium educators leading the Thursday group.
The good cheer spread through the classroom, and after the initial ice breaker exercise everyone was in the same frame of mind.
Each session the class breaks down into small groups to work on a large project over several weeks, and Iris, Damaris and Hander had last year's project under their belts. They built a Remote Operated Vehicle, or ROV, designed to wend its way through the water at the discretion of the teenagers remote control device.
The three, who worked together as a team last session, described their ROV for Patch, starting and finishing each other's sentences as friends often do.
“Our ROV was flat,” Damaris.
“It had two motors on the side so it could move left or right,” said Iris.
And there was one motor in the middle so it could go up or down,” said Hander. “It was about as long as a shoebox,” he added using his hands to indicate the ROV’s size.
“We had our own remote control that we made so we could control it from out of the water,” Iris added.
The teens' enthusiasm was palpable and that's the whole point. The Dead Reckoners, which is for 9th and 10th graders, is considered the entry program in the aquarium's multi-level program called "TeMPEST." The acronym stands for Teen Maritime Program Emphasizing Science & Technology and has the goals of promoting teens' STEM literacy and preparing them for college as well as making them aware of opportunities and develop skills for related careers.
The two teachers, Caitlin Emro, 24, and Kerry Johnson, 25, are role models themselves for the teens.
Emro started volunteering at the aquarium when she was 15. She got a BS in Biology at Clarkson in Posdam, NY and lights up the room as a part-time classroom educator with the Dead Reckoners.
"We went out to the high schools to meet with interested students and tell them about the program," said Emro. "At Brien McMahon about 75 kids came to the session, which is why there are so many of them in this year's session. At Norwalk High the teachers picked a handful for our presentation, so there's fewer from that school."
The Aquarium hopes to expand the program to accommodate more students and eventually serve as many as 120 students a session.
Johnston, 25, who also has a nice way with the teenagers, volunteered at the aquarium after graduating from Roger Williams University in 2010 with a degree in Marine Biology with a concentration in Creative Writing. She has been a part-time educator at the Aquarium since 2010.
This year, according to Chris Loynd from the Aquarium's marketing department, the Dead Reckoners students will design aquarium exhibits for their projects.
"It's one thing to read it in a book, and another thing to actually do it, build it and make it hands-on," Loynd said.
The hands-on approach is an obvious hit. Based on the smiles and eagerness of 25 teens, engaged despite meeting after a long day of high school and likely a night of homework in the balance, their enthusiasm is contagious.
Certainly Paul Newman would be proud. The program is funded largely by a grant from the Newman's Own Foundation.