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Garry Tucker/ Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Alligator snapping turtles are endemic to the Midwest and the East Coast. They grow to weigh about 220 pounds, usually live to be between 50 and 100 years old and eat fish and frogs.

Whitney Young to adopt endangered turtles, stir up student curiosity

by Monika Wnuk
Nov 21, 2013


Monika Wnuk/ MEDILL

Anthony Sperman and Michael Fong test the device they created that communicates data from sensors in their aquaponics system. The device will test the water quality of the aquariums the turtles will call their homes.


Monika Wnuk/MEDILL

The blue chip, or Arduino, is the link between the sensors and a computer. Sperman and Fong have programmed it to transfer water quality data from the the tank, which then alerts their teacher to problems.

Snapping turtles may not be pretty, but now they’ve found love.

Whitney M. Young Magnet High School’s efforts to rear the endangered species became a reality Wednesday night when the local school council unanimously gave the green light to raise alligator snapping turtles starting early next year. In preparation, students at the school are designing a technology to test water quality in the turtles’ aquarium and alert caretakers to problems.

Todd Katz, a biology teacher at Whitney Young, first learned about school involvement with endangered species from Paul Ritter, a teacher at Pontiac Township High School in southern Illinois. Ritter and his students started a non-profit called Operation Endangered Species in 2011, which allowed them to raise money to bring a batch of alligator snapping turtles to their school.

Katz’s students in Chicago and Ritter’s students in Pontiac are teaming up to bring 75 hatchlings of the same species from Oklahoma to Illinois next year. As soon as Katz and his students receive approval from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, they will receive one turtle from Pontiac, with the others to come later.

The rocklike turtles, which grow to weigh about 220 pounds and usually live between 50 and 100 years, are endemic to the Midwest and East Coast. The species, not particularly blessed with beauty, has been hunted and consumed for decades, landing it on the Illinois list of endangered and threatened species. The students at Pontiac and Whitney Young hope to change that, while still staying clear of the snapping mouths.

"Some of these animals will outlive us and we helped make that happen," Katz and his students hope to say one day soon.

The effort to procure and raise the turtles on a diet of fish and frogs is multifaceted and will call on students from different disciplines to make it happen. Student writers will work on grants and student biologists will create the 30- by 18- by 12-inch aquarium-based habitat for each turtle.

"There's not one position out there that says this is the science aspect of your job or this is the English aspect. Everything flows together to make a project happen,” Ritter said.

As part of the multidisciplinary effort, two Whitney Young students are already developing a key technology to help maintain water quality in the aquariums where the turtles will live.

Senior Anthony Sperman and junior Michael Fong are pioneering the programming of a device called an Arduino to communicate data on water quality from the tank to Katz online.

The device, which costs about $25 and is the key component in do-it-yourself 3-D printers, goes by the technical term single-board microcontroller. The students have programmed it to send data from multiple sensors that detect water level, temperature, pH, and nitrate or nitrite levels inside of the tank to a computer.

Sperman and Fong have tested the sensors they’ll be using in the small aquaponics set-up in Katz’s classroom and want to buy more sensors to be used on a larger scale in their school greenhouse and eventually in the turtle tanks.

"Once we get all the parts we can compile all the codes into one code so when we upload it to the Arduino it can run all the sensors at the same time,” said Fong.

The students code the data to be read in plain language by their instructor, who can then respond in the event of a problem. They explained how that would work if the water level exceeded the appropriate amount.

“In the code it would say if it's at a higher level then display on the computer in text ‘tank is full’ and if that’s displayed then start a pump,” Sperman said.

With this week’s approval from the local school council, Katz and Ritter will move forward to get the proper permits approved by the DNR and students will work to raise money for material and maintenance. If all goes as planned, the turtles will live in a 9-by-9-foot room that’s made of glass on three sides and lined with aquariums. In this way, they hope to invite and involve the whole school in their adventure.

Both Katz and Ritter hope to expand the model to get more schools involved in saving more of the 484 species listed as endangered and threatened in Illinois. They see the value in getting students involved in activism locally.


“These kids are our future leaders, so we're going to have them doing work with these endangered species and realizing that inhibitions, red tape and bureaucracy start to dissolve and that they can make an impact in their community” Katz said.