On a Wednesday in April, a group of third graders are saving Fred. They poke at Fred with paper clips, and they discuss the various possibilities for staging a rescue.

Fred is a multicolored gummy worm. He is perched atop an upside-down plastic cup, meant to represent his boat. The boat/cup has capsized, trapping his gummy life vest. The students’ mission is to reunite Fred with his vest using four paper clips, their collective wits, and advice gleaned from a team of STEM professionals. It’s a critical thinking activity that highlights the fun side of STEM, and produces a sense of joy and wonderment among the students that perfectly embodies the event’s inspiration: Dr. Craig Yennie.

Dr. Yennie was an extraordinary scientist and scholar, and one of the founding members of COMPASS Youth Collaborative. He passed away unexpectedly in 2016. It is in his spirit that COMPASS Youth Collaborative launched the First Annual Dr. Craig Yennie STEM Day, because prior to his passing, Craig was a beloved adjunct professor of Organic Chemistry at Brown University. He was an accomplished scholar who published in academic journals. He was a hometown hero who never forgot his Hartford roots and a die-hard Whalers fan. Craig did so much during his time on earth and had so much left to do, that it is now a collective responsibility to carry on in his stead.

To continue his legacy, COMPASS Youth Collaborative teamed up with the Yennie family.  The STEM Day on April 25, 2018, brought together COMPASS students and STEM professionals from United Technologies. The professionals imparted their passion for STEM with the kids; in turn, the students saw tangible examples of a STEM career. It was also a day to honor Craig’s love of life and learning – hence, a Whalers colors theme, and hands-on activities to spark student creativity.

In the words of COMPASS CEO Robert Pawloski, who gave the keynote address that day, “We are here to remember a person who blazed an incredible trail during his lifetime. We honor him today not just as a scientist and scholar, but as an individual deeply committed to helping others.”

To understand what made Craig so unique is to first acknowledge that he came from a truly special family. His mother, Hyacinth, is the definition of a committed community activist. She leads innumerable community initiatives, is a fixture at municipal meetings, and may well be the pied piper of Hartford’s South End.

Hyacinth describes herself in three ways: “I’m a multi-tasker, I am very curious, and I want to know everything.”

She adds this last bit with a big laugh. Everyone who knows Hyacinth knows this; her morning walks around the neighborhood often take hours, because she stops to check on the welfare of her neighbors, always at the ready to lend a hand or give an ear.

Hyacinth’s primary passion is promoting education. She instilled a love of learning in each of her three children. The oldest, Charley, earned her doctorate in medicine and is a family practitioner at a clinic in Hartford’s Blue Hills section. Craig, the middle child, received his PhD from Brown and planned on attending law school. Her youngest, Melissa, is a teacher in Hartford Public Schools and on the cusp of earning her PhD from Central Connecticut State University. All three grew up trailing their mom to community meetings, pitching in for the cause de jour, and each found their own ways to make a difference.

Craig’s calling came early. By his 10th birthday, many of Hartford’s streets were rife with gang violence, and it threatened to engulf the city’s youngest residents. In response, Craig joined a local youth group. The kids successfully lobbied for a youth center, a place for peace and positivity, a respite among the chaos. Craig was among the youth panelists who hired Bob Pawloski as the Center’s Director. Thanks to the efforts of young people like Craig, a drop-in recreation center became an organization that has, for the past 22 years, improved the lives of thousands of youth and their families.

His advocacy for the underserved remained constant throughout his life, particularly during his teaching career at an Ivy League institution. There can be a tendency at top-tier universities to focus on the high fliers, on the faculty and students who are the most exceptional. Craig believed in teaching from the bottom up.

Dr. Craig Yennie during his COMPASS days

He mentored the students who struggled with the course material, and he related well with those who struggled to fit in. During his memorial service, a student recalled once attending a tutoring session with Dr. Yennie. While waiting for the illustrious professor to appear, the students were shocked to realize that Dr. Yennie was sitting and chatting amongst them. That was Craig: always humble, always kind, and always interested in the well being of others.

For Craig’s mother Hyacinth, her middle child was just a touch