By Zack Newman
A group of teens from Baltimore County spend their days after school with friends with gills instead of lungs.
The Aquarium on Wheels (AOW) program, sponsored by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, teaches members about sea creatures and brings learning to a new level, giving kids a chance to meet the animals they read about.
"A lot of times when we go to the Enoch Pratt Free Library that's the kid's first, or potentially only aquarium encounter," said Maria Madero, the Education Specialist of Youth Programs at the aquarium. "So when we bring those animals. Even though to us we may have seen horseshoe crabs a ton of times on the beach, or whelks, which are sea snails, and sea urchins and the things that we bring, and hermit crabs, they light up."
After the play, attendants have the chance to see and touch animals that are brought along. The usual sea creatures are horseshoe crabs, whelks, sea urchins, sea snails and hermit crabs.
The high school students travel throughout the summer from library to library in the Enoch Pratt Free Library system over 30 times a year and present a play entirely created by them. Members write the play and make the costumes and set.
"Just creating the plays are really awesome, because you get to think about how are we going to set this up, what games are we going to have, what costumes are we going to make, what backdrops we're going to have," said 17-year-old Dana Wilson, who has been a member of AOW for two years. "This is a once in a lifetime thing, there is nothing like this. Nothing I've ever done is similar to this. Ever!"
Three-year member Christopher Porter remembers when he was one of the spectators.
"Performing in front of the kids is a pleasure, because one day, that was me," he said.
Porter plans to study marine biology in college, and enjoys the applicable training he receives as a part of the program.
"You learn about aquarium life and marine life, not just doing that, you also learn about communication skills," he said. "You learn what a real job is like, a job is what you do and have fun with it."
Members of Aquarium on Wheels is a year-round commitment. They train in the winter, write the play and create the costumes in the spring, and preform the play in the summer. In addition, they take trips to other aquariums and to the natural habitats of the animals they study all year. A recent trip includes a camping stint to beaches in Delaware, where AOW saw horseshoe crabs spawn.
Because of the amount of time they spend together, the group becomes akin to a family.
"For me it's getting a chance to see the same students every week. I like to create those relationships and I really feel like they trust us more because they see us every week, and we get to teach them something their interested in," Madero said.