Then, a twist! The seal lunges in the air, pivots, narrowly avoiding the gaping jaws of a great white shark. "This is behavioral adaptation, guys," Varma tells summer school biology students at Conard High School in West Hartford.
Perhaps Varma, one of 111 mid-career professionals in the state's Alternate Route to Certification summer program, could relate.
"I was a scientist," he says later. The 42-year-old was most recently with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer working on drug discovery, "the next generation of treatments for things like diabetes, Alzheimer's. That's what I used to do." He pauses. "In my past life."
Among the stories of recession job loss in Connecticut is a narrative that state Commissioner of Higher Education Michael Meotti calls a "circle of life." While companies reduce their ranks, highly educated workers do have an escape, if they want the challenge: teaching the next generation of scientists, engineers and financial analysts.
Students in the current session of the alternate route program, which provides an opportunity for teacher certification after only nine weeks, come directly from companies such as Bristol-Myers Squibb, RXi Pharmaceuticals, JPMorgan Chase and UBS Investment Bank. Most are hoping to teach subjects habitually in need of educators. Thirty-two are specializing in the sciences, 29 in mathematics and 15 in world languages. Fifteen have doctorates in their field.
And compared to last year, state officials are fielding a 44 percent increase in applicants for the program's weekend session, which begins this fall and requires a period of student teaching. Of the 390 seeking an admission notice this month, at least eight are from Pfizer, said Maria Davoodi, the program's interim director. Four come from The Courant.
"You have in Connecticut a lot of people in businesses in which science and math and globalization ... is a fact of life," Meotti said. "Science in places like Pfizer and the other pharmaceutical research entities, science in United Technologies, you've got math pervasive in insurance companies and financial services."
When job cuts hit the workplace, the outgoing talent becomes a "great resource for the state," Meotti said. "You have people with 15, 20, 25 years of experience... The ARC program helps them either achieve a certain dream or helps them meet changing economic realities."
As a research scientist, Varma is in good company. Four other Pfizer veterans are in the latest session of the alternate route program that ends Friday. They include 48-year-old Kimberly Estep, a former lab supervisor at the company's Groton research facility who holds a doctorate in organic chemistry.
Estep was laid off when Pfizer eliminated her drug discovery department in January.
"As scientists at Pfizer discussed what was going to happen, and what their plan B was, a lot of people were talking about teaching science to kids," said Estep, a mother of three who has taught Sunday school.
At Conard one recent morning, Estep was back in a lab, this time observing teens combine magnesium ribbon with hydrochloric acid. Down the hall, Steve Goldstein — Estep's former boss who worked at Pfizer for 23 years and took early retirement during the layoffs — is also teaching summer school chemistry as part of the alternate route program.
"I'm having a blast doing this," said Goldstein, 51, a Noank resident with a doctorate in chemistry. "It's new, it's fresh. It changes every day. … Boy, it's sort of endless here. Anywhere from going back and reviewing chemistry I haven't seen in more than 30 years, to classroom management."
The Plan BEvery state in the country has some form of an ARC program, allowing older professionals to circumvent the traditional two years in teacher preparation classes at a local college. Connecticut's program, formed in 1986 as part of the state Educational Enhancement Act, has graduated more than 3,730 people since the first class in 1988, including, program officials like to point out, the 2007 Connecticut Teacher of the Year.
On average, 85 percent of graduates are hired within the first six months of leaving the program, and 80 percent remain teachers five years later.
But this is no average economy. Budget cuts have eliminated 1,119 teaching positions in the state, according to Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents.
And while the state's 17 technical high schools have lost 108 teachers through a retirement incentive program this year, hiring remains in limbo because state lawmakers have not agreed on an operating budget.
Still, teachers specializing in shortage areas such as math and science are constantly in need, said Nick Caruso, a spokesman for the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, particularly as districts become even more hyper-aware of standardized test scores. Results on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test released last week show a statewide dip for 10th-graders in science, mathematics and writing.
For Varma, a New Haven resident with a master's degree in molecular biology, being a teacher means his annual pay will drop by more than half. He grew tired of "politics" in the corporate world and believes "kids have not yet learned to be deceitful."
"I'm willing to try," said Varma, who wants to determine whether he is good at the job before applying for positions. His wife teaches high school Spanish in Stratford and loves it. "The bottom line is, I would not consider this an option if it wasn't fulfilling."
Goldstein is also married to a teacher, which means he knew the career would be difficult. He leaves home shortly before 6 a.m., carpools with Estep and two other Pfizer veterans to the Hartford area, where often they spend a full day student-teaching and attending program classes, returning home at 6 p.m. Then there is homework to complete, lesson plans to prepare for the next day and, despite the doctorate in chemistry, poring over the high school textbook word for word.
"It's scary stuff," Goldstein said in a whisper as students worked at their desks. But he's smiling. "Having fun with it. ... I'm too old not to enjoy a job for the rest of my working career."
•People interested in the alternate route program can call (800) 842-0229, or visit www.ctdhe.org/ARC. The application deadline for next year's summer session is in January. Tuition for the current year is $3,750, not including textbooks.