The third-graders cheered as they urged 13 terrapins - ranging in size from a half-dollar to a hamburger - on their way to a watery finish line at Chesapeake Bay Environmental Center in Queen Anne's County.
"Come on, Sharpie!" yelled Dalton Maize, an 8-year-old from George Cromwell Elementary School in Glen Burnie, as his new cold-blooded friend clawed its way across the algae toward an open stretch of Prospect Bay recently.
The turtles' release by pupils from two Anne Arundel County schools last week celebrated the return of a popular program scrapped by the state last year that let schools raise terrapin hatchlings and release them into their native habitat.
Officials from the Department of Natural Resources, which continues to commission scientific studies of turtles and their habitats, said the state abandoned the school program primarily because the classroom effort lacked funding.
But the nonprofit Terrapin Institute and the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center in Millersville are putting the turtle project back in the classroom in what school officials say is a perfect addition to the Anne Arundel school system's Chesapeake Connections environmental science program.
This year, 30 classes in 25 Anne Arundel County schools will raise the turtles in aquariums and release them this spring. Schools in Calvert and Queen Anne's counties also will raise turtles.
And state officials are happy to have it back - though under a private sponsor.
"We certainly see a value in the terrapin as an icon, and a very appealing icon, to the general public," said Howard King, director of fisheries.
Through Chesapeake Connections, teachers and children study the bay and how human actions affect its environment. In addition to raising the turtles this year, pupils grow bay grasses and create a schoolyard habitat or restore an area of their community.
"What we end up with in the end is true stewards," said Stephen G. Barry, director of Arlington Echo, a school system center where the project is based.
It's a great way to connect kids to real-life, local environmental issues, said Lori Runk, third-grade teacher at George Cromwell, who will receive a nearly 2-month-old turtle at the end of the month.
Marguerite Whilden, founder and co-director of the Terrapin Institute, agreed. She managed the terrapin program for the state before it was discontinued. "If you don't get people impassioned about this, forget it," Whilden said.
The turtles also benefit from the program, Whilden said. Only 1 percent of terrapin eggs typically hatch in the wild, she said, because of predators and other perils.
However, when raised in captivity, the turtles continue to eat and grow instead of hibernating through the winter.
The reptiles can achieve the equivalent of three years of growth by the time they are released -large enough to avoid predators that attack hatchlings.
The schools will receive their hatchlings at the end the month. Barry said he and other staff at Arlington Echo have been making frozen "fish-cicles" to feed to the turtles to ensure they have the necessary calcium and protein to form strong shells and grow large.
They supplement their diets with protein-based pellets through the winter.
The terrapin component of Chesapeake Connections cost $7,000, mostly funded through private donations, Barry said. He is seeking additional grant funding for other aspects of the science program.
Although funding was the primary reason for the state program's demise, some people had raised concerns that children and turtles might contract germs from each other. The DNR has developed a protocol for handling the animals, King said.
"This is just an extreme precautionary measure," he said. "There have been no reports of any problems related to terrapins."
All the animals were checked for salmonella before being sent to schools, Barry said.
Children won't be encouraged to touch the turtles, and everyone who handles them must wash his hands. Veterinarians will also examine the animals before they are released, King said.
At the turtle release, Whilden instructed the children not to put the terrapins in their mouths or kiss them.
The release of turtles last week by the George Cromwell and Central Middle School pupils gave the children an opportunity to observe terrapin behavior and habitat.
Some of the animals ducked their heads under the surface of the water to forage right away, while others headed away from the shore.
After the excitement of the turtle release race died down, Barry asked the George Cromwell pupils to think before they go to bed each night about where their turtles might be swimming.
"Then think about the things we do on land that hurt the turtles and things you can do to help them," he said.