Summer center can be 'life-changing' experience for students

Ari'Yonna Vrathwaite thought she would be a music producer when she grew up, until she started attending a program at the National Aquarium this week. Now, the program that gets students involved in research about the Chesapeake Bay watershed has given Ari'Yonna something to think about: marine biology as a career.

"I really like it and I want to come back here again," she said. "We have fun."

Ari'Yonna, 13 and a rising eighth-grader at Commodore John Rogers School in Baltimore, said that so far she liked testing the oxygen level in the water the most.

The Chesapeake Bay program is one of 11 that the Maryland State Department of Education runs during the summer. This year, 25 students in grades seven through nine are enrolled in the two-week bay program, working with blue crabs and water to investigate what goes on under the sea.

This week at the aquarium, students are learning about the bay. Next week, they will go to Horn Point Laboratory on the Eastern Shore and stay in cabins to learn more about and work directly with Chesapeake Bay species, said Maria Madero, director of the summer center.

The program is highly selective, with a six-step application process that requires students to write an essay, get a teacher's recommendation and submit their grades, Madero said.

Of the 25 students, 12 are from Baltimore.

"They're going to places and speaking to people they never would have been able to otherwise," Madero said. "They're getting into the nitty-gritty of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and blue crabs."

Brandon Matthews, 13, is also going into the eighth grade at Commodore John Rodgers and got involved in the summer program because he has always loved working with animals and meeting new people.

"I thought this would be a good experience," said Brandon, who added that he's already learning a lot more about blue crabs than he did in school.

Stephanie Zenker, education specialist in gifted education at the Department of Education, said she gets phone calls from students from past years who tell her the program has been a "life-changing" experience.

"It's unique in that it brings bright students together from all over the state of Maryland in areas of passion and interest," Zenker said of the program, now in its 47th year. "It's just a wonderful experience for them to be who they want to be and who they are."

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