World-Class Science Pontiac Township High School Gains Global Reputation for Quality Environmental Education Programs by Kathy Andrews Wright

In some regards, the hallways of Pontiac Township High School are like any other high school. Conversations range from homecoming to getting a driver’s license to making plans to meet after practice. But listen more closely to the conversations and you might pick up snippets of a recent report on prescription drug levels in the water supply. A few feet further along, a couple may be making suppositions about the bone fragments in the archaeological sample sorted that morning. Further down the hallway, a group may be discussing the biology of the alligator snapping turtle and their assignment to produce a pamphlet for dissemination to the public.

Educators and administrators at the Livingston County high school are driving home the concept that the Earth is ours to care for future generations. For the 758-student school, caring means developing a world-class prescription drug recycling program, digging through archaeological samples to aid in Ice Age research and raising an Illinois endangered species.

“The mission of our district states that ‘We are committed to the development of our students as adaptive learners, global thinkers, and responsible citizens through collaboration across our school community’,” said Eric Bohm Principal. “In the past few years our science department has developed three programs that truly live up to the mission of this district.”

At the Beginning—Protecting Our Waters

In 2007, science teacher Paul Ritter was asked by his wife: “What should I do with some of the unused pharmaceuticals in our medicine cabinet?” This simple question led to the development of a prescription drug recycling program that has garnered global attention.

Lacking an immediate answer to the question, Ritter turned to the students in his Ecology class. Researching the impact of chemicals in our waters, and speaking with local officials, they learned that the United States Geological Society has detected antibiotics, anti-depressants, birth control pills, seizure medications, cancer treatments, pain killers, tranquilizers and cholesterol-lowering compounds in varied ground water sources, and that current waste water treatment methods in the United States are ineffective in removing many chemicals from our waters. Utilizing their research, students developed P2D2—Prescription Pill and Drug Disposal—and approached local pharmacies and law enforcement agencies (repositories for controlled substances) asking for creation of a safe means for disposal of prescription and non-prescription drugs. (The most environmentally safe technology for disposal of pharmaceuticals entails incineration, a process regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency to minimize air contamination. A by-product of the incineration process is energy.) Students in PTHS’s Illinois Studies class followed suite with a letter writing campaign asking federal, state and local officials to aid in educating Illinois citizens about the issue.

Because of the media efforts coordinated by PTHS students, P2D2 took off like the proverbial wild fire. Requests for information started pouring in from communities and state officials throughout the nation. And then, from around the globe.

2012 was a banner year for P2D2.

In April 2012, Governor Pat Quinn signed into law Illinois House Bills 2056 and 2053, passed unanimously by the Illinois legislature, protecting Illinois’ water supply by regulating the disposal of expired and unused pharmaceuticals.

P2D2 has been so successful in helping to stem the potentially disastrous, life-altering pollution of our waters that in June 2012 a team of PTHS students and teachers traveled to Goteborg, Sweden and received the bronze award in the Volvo Adventure global environmental completion for youth, a partnership with the United Nations Environment Program.
This year, PTHS also received the World Citizenship Award from the European-based Scouts of the World organization for development of P2D2 and for encouraging proper drug disposal to help avoid water contamination and drug misuse.

P2D2 had blasted the doors to the world off the hinges of Pontiac Townships High School.
“The most exciting thing is we get to go and talk to the people and get the program out to the world,” explained 10th grade student Samantha Quinn after returning from Sweden.

Round Two—Digging Into the Past

With P2D2 fully functional, science educators Paul Ritter and Brian Hitchins seized the opportunity to involve students in a real-world, hands-on laboratory lesson that would greatly benefit professionals in the fields of archaeology, paleontology and climate change.

Between 13,000 and 15,000 years ago, the area around the Kane County community of Aurora was a forested swamp—the ideal habitat for the prehistoric mastodon. Wet, cool climatic conditions proved perfect for preservation of biological samples, which archaeologists collected in the 1930s and again in 2004.

Unfortunately, after samples were screen-washed and stored, funding for the project ended. Samples remained shelved until 2011 when PTHS General Science students became, in essence, junior scientists on the Aurora Mastodont Matrix Project. Following a presentation by Illinois State Museum paleontologist Chris Widgea, students began to sort materials and graph their results. Not only does their research indicate what the soil pH was, and what the mastodons were eating, it sheds light on other creatures inhabiting the area, such as snails which were intolerant to swings in climatic conditions.

Through the work of PTHS students, rather than bags of archaeological survey samples sitting useless on the shelf, researchers from throughout the world now have access to information that can, perhaps, help piece together the baffling mystery of the extinction of mastodons.

Part Three—From Extinction to Reintroduction

The latest of the natural resource-based programs created at Pontiac Township High School is Operation Endangered Species and entails assisting the Illinois Department of Natural Resources implement a program that won’t come to fruition for at least 8 years. That’s how long students will have to rear Illinois-endangered alligator snapping turtles (Macrochelys temminckii) before the reptiles will be mature enough to release to their natural, historic habitats.

Alligator snapping turtles historically were found in watersheds throughout southern Illinois, but despite more than 3,000 hours of trapping by IDNR, no individuals have been located in the Prairie State since 1984. Alligator snapping turtles mature at 11 to 17 years of age, and the vast, unregulated harvest of adult turtles prior to 1960 most likely was the biggest contributing factor to the population decline.

Handling an endangered species—meant literally and figuratively in this instance—entails developing a sound understanding of its biology. Students must know how to safely handle a reptile with jaws capable of biting through a finger. They must know what it eats and how often it will feed. Captive rearing means knowing the ideal water temperature that this animal needs to thrive. For years, future classes of students will make these same discoveries, monitoring the habits and growth of their turtles, passing the information along to their successors and endangered species biologists.

Recovery of the alligator snapping turtle is consistent with IDNR’s Strategic Plan and its legislatively mandated responsibilities, and recovery of this species is unlikely without direct management, such as translocation and/or release of captive-raised individuals. Joining IDNR in development of a recovery plan for this species are a variety of experts from throughout the country, including Dr. Brady Barr with the National Geographic Society, and a host of biologists and zoological park experts who specialize in endangered species.

Illinois students will be pioneers in the restoration of the alligator snapping turtle, modeling their classroom efforts after a model utilized with other reptilian species, including the Eastern diamondback terrapin (Makaclemys terrapin, native to the Atlantic and Gulf coast) and Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii, whose range centers on the Great Lakes and is an Illinois-threatened species). While the program will kick-off in Pontiac, ultimately at least 75 educator-partners throughout Illinois may receive turtles. Working with the 1,300-member Illinois Science Teachers Association will engage science educators from all corners of the state, diversifying the educational and socioeconomic range of turtle-rearing students. At its peak, the program may directly impact more than 72,000 students.

PTHS students wrote the Operation Endangered Species teacher curriculum and standard operating procedures that will be the starting point and compass of the project. PTHS students will train educators who will, in turn, train their students in program methodologies. To elevate the understanding on the need to conserve and protect an endangered species, participating students will educate the public through local presentations and outreach efforts, such as public service announcements and promotional items.

Throughout the year, students will be responsible for feeding turtles in their classroom, and for taking vital statistics (weight, shell length, feeding habits, etc.) that they will submit to a statewide database for use by research scientists. Once the classroom-reared turtles have reached maturity, students from participating schools will take part in releasing the animals. The first watersheds expected to see the return of this endangered species are the Cache, Big Muddy and Saline drainage areas in southern Illinois.

“Operation Endangered Species provides the opportunity to get large numbers of high school students out in the field with biologists,” said Joe Kath, IDNR Endangered Species Program Manager. “After years of caring for these turtles, they will be a part of the turtle release and participate in telemetry studies. There’s no better way to help teach the next generation of biologists than to have them mentored by professionals before they graduate high school. All it takes is one major event like this in someone’s life and they’re inspired to go the same direction.”

Recovery Plan consultant Dr. Brady Barr, Resident Scientist with the National Geographic Society, concurs that Operation Endangered Species will have a tremendous impact on the lives of many.

“Hands-on animal activities in the classroom not only introduce, or reconnect kids with nature, they most importantly foster a love and passion for wildlife by those kids that is carried with them for a lifetime,” Barr explained.

Just like its predecessor programs, Operation Endangered Species isn’t restricted to the science classroom. Peek into the math classroom and you may find students crunching data and preparing graphs. English students are busy creating a 24-hour Turtle Cam, a multi-media portfolio project, Internet PSA announcements, pamphlets and posters to help spread awareness. Not to be left out of the effort, those enrolled in a music course produced the Operation Endangered Species theme song, and art students designed banners for use in presentations.
Marc Miller, Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said “Operation Endangered Species and the receipt of support through grant funds will greatly speed the reintroduction an extirpated species and show the power of private-public partnerships to help protect endangered species. I am truly hopeful that when all of the students involved with Operation Endangered Species enter the work force, that they hopefully choose paths in conservation and help make great things happen.”

Operation Endangered Species already has captured the attention of businesses having a commitment to youth and environmental causes.

In 2012, Operation Endangered Species received a $100,000 grant from State Farm.

Other organizations helping to support this effort include Illinois American Water, the University of Illinois Enlist (Entrepreneurial Leadership for Teachers) program, Peoria Zoo, St. Louis Zoo, Illinois Science Teachers Association, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Tishomingo Hatchery, .

Growing Real-World Citizen Scientists

Collectively, these three science-based programs foster students learning as real-world citizen scientists, working to find solutions to a natural resource issue that affects each of us.
Successful educational efforts provide a foundation for encouraging participants to think globally about how their actions impact their environment—both positively and negatively. Collaborating with other communities develops students who are civically engaged and environmentally active.

Empowering students to lead in the development of a program encourages them to become adaptive learners, helps keep them in school and inspires them to excel in the classroom. Working hand-in-hand with resource professionals, students develop a deeper understanding of potential career paths. Through the cooperative efforts of the students, teachers, community members, local agencies, businesses, the state and numerous business and foundations, these educational efforts are guaranteed to be effective in achieving environmental successes.

And on the flip side of this win-win scenario, natural resource agencies are gaining valuable assistance in the collection of scientifically sound data. Using these programs as a template, the sky’s the limit for replication of these concepts in similar hands-on science lessons.

“The teachers and students of Pontiac High School are an inspiration to us all, and show us that being engaged can make a difference,” affirmed Director Miller.


Kathy Andrews Wright retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in May 2012 after 33 years with the agency, serving most recently as editor of OutdoorIllinois magazine. She is working as a freelance writer, environmental educator and scuba diving instructor.