The retired Navy captain, who had commanded hundreds of troops with a single word, was having a little trouble with the eighth graders.

"All right, there's a little too much chatter," Richard Colonna said in a voice without the snap and power of "Atten-hut!"

With four days left, the countdown to the end of school had begun at Springfield Township High School in Montgomery County, and the giddiness could barely be contained. Control depended on a man, once in charge of a Navy vessel, who now had to navigate his way around a different kind of leadership.

A year ago, Colonna stepped off the military base and into the high school classroom (Springfield High starts at eighth grade) to embark on a second career as a teacher of earth science and algebra.

The Harleysville resident is part of the Military Education Corps, a new regional program designed to boost science and math instruction by turning veterans into schoolteachers. Colonna is the first participant to be placed in a school.

The Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center, a nonprofit group that helps small and medium-size manufacturers grow, started the project last year because executives the DVIRC serves were having difficulty finding employees with science, math, engineering, and technology skills. The program spans kindergarten through 12th grade.

"We started to take the long view and think about the problem holistically and programmatically," said Anthony Girifalco, executive vice president of the DVIRC.

The group hopes that influencing students early will result in skilled employees later.

The program is funded with a $500,000 grant from the Lenfest Foundation. The initiative initially focused on Navy veterans because benefactor H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest served in the Navy, but the program is open to veterans of all branches.

The program helps vets with state education and certification requirements, financial assistance, and employment. Similar initiatives include the Troops to Teachers program, which the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Defense launched in 1994.

Troops to Teachers has placed more than 140 teachers in Pennsylvania schools, said Jeff Culp, the state coordinator. The DVIRC's program plans to have 10 in classrooms by 2010, Girifalco said.

Colonna started in the fall after a speedy hiring process. Springfield High was having a hard time finding a science teacher, principal Otis Hackney said. DVIRC reps contacted district officials, and Colonna was interviewed. He got the job that day.

"It was: 'Welcome. You've never done this before. See you Tuesday,' " Colonna, 48, said.

He had long wanted to be a teacher. Colonna calls it a goal that evolved naturally from his role as a father of five, Sunday school teacher, and sports coach in the community.

He did all that for years alongside his duties as a Navy man.

Colonna followed in the footsteps of a grandfather who served as baker on the aircraft carrier Bataan during World War II. Colonna earned a bachelor's degree in nautical science from the Merchant Marine Academy in New York in 1983, and sailed to ports of call around the world. He then activated his commission in the Navy, commanding a reserve center in Ebensburg, Pa., and the amphibious transport dock Austin in Norfolk, Va.

He earned a master's degree in education and his teacher's certification as part of the Military Career Transition program through Old Dominion University in Norfolk. In 2007, he assumed command of the Navy Operation Support Center at Willow Grove Naval Air Station. When he retired and became part of the DVIRC program, he moved swiftly through the pipeline because he was already certified.

"I wanted to take what I learned and help build the leaders of tomorrow," Colonna said. "You really want to make a difference in each and every kid. Sometimes that doesn't happen, but most of the time you can do a pretty good job."

He calls his classroom his "little command." Military certificates and pictures of the Austin crew hang near posters of the Earth and the periodic table.

His command of the classroom is nuanced. He cajoles, encourages, and demands. Colonna's students call him fun. He lights scented candles in his room, and after the presentation of student projects Tuesday, he held a miniature end-of-the-year party with music from Motown and a little dancing by Colonna.

"When I first met him, I thought he would be totally strict," said Jacqueline Weiss, 14, of Wyndmoor. "He handles us like we're not kids, like we're adults. He's open and not harsh - except when he needs to be."

Contact staff writer Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.