Pontiac Township High School biology teacher Paul Ritter was presented with a resolution Thursday morning by Rep. Tom Bennett for his work reintroducing alligator snapping turtles, an endangered species, back into their natural habitats, with the eventual goal of keeping the species at a sustainable level of independence in the state. Ritter, in turn, credited the interest and energy of his students for the project's fruition.

    When the biology teacher was presented with a copy of the resolution, both Bennett, R-Gibson City, and Ritter offered background on what the project entailed.

    “This project with the turtles, he worked on that with a guy by the name of Dr. Brady Barr of National Geographic, and they worked together on Operation Endangered Species-Alligator Snapping Turtle program,” Bennett said. “He worked with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and their own snapping turtle program, and what he's done has just been amazing.”

    “Essentially, the program came about by finding out a way to engage with students,” Ritter added. “Dr. Barr, who was attending a conference we were both at, and I had discussion on how to engage students with the concerns of endangered species. We came up with a basic plan of using local endangered species to allow students to play an active role in conservation biology and make a difference in the lives of local species.

    Ritter said that his students managed to obtain a grant from the State Farm Youth Advisory Board for $100,000 and kicked the program off in 2011. To date, Ritter said that the students have released in excess of 400 alligator snapping turtles into the wild.

    Never one to rest on his laurels, Ritter said that he and his students already have other species conservation projects in the works, with an emphasis on symbiotic relationships and how interdependent things within the natural world are to each other. Bennett intimated that he couldn't wait to see what projects were on the horizon.

    “As a former teacher myself, this is the kind of stuff that makes being a legislator really worth it,” he said. “The very hands-on approach Paul takes with his students is just very impressive stuff, and on top of that, they're doing really good work in helping out some species that really need it. You couldn't ask for more from an educator, so that's why the General Assembly wanted to offer its thanks.”

    “I'm thankful for the House of Representatives, and especially Tom Bennett here, has recognized not myself, but the work of these kids, and this is not about me but it's what they've done,” the science teacher replied. Ritter concluded that his efforts would hopefully have a long-term impact on the young minds he was cultivating.

    “When we have the opportunity to engage students and allow them to take an active role in what their doing, not only do they make a difference, but it's a life-changing thing for them,” he said. “They then have a greater appreciation for the rest of their lives; they have an understanding and a drive. They may not become particularly passionate about alligator snapping turtles, but that industrious spirit transcends into something else, some other passion.”