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Endangered Turtles Get Help from Thoreau Kids in National Challenge

Fourth-graders are national runners-up in Disney Planet Challenge.

It started small, the way big things often do. Fourth-grade teacher Susan Erickson noticed a blurb about the Disney Planet Challenge as she was casting about for a project. She talked to the class at about what they might want to do and a project about protecting the local Blanding's turtles sprang to life.

The class decided to enter the national challenge which was about something local in their community that would help the planet. Erickson said the challenge was to "design a project with an environmental goal to fix a local problem."

Erickson knew Blanding's turtles live in New England around ponds and marshes. But they are becoming rarer because the hatchlings are food for larger water-loving animals. Each of the 11 fourth-grade classrooms in Concord has two Blanding's turtles as class pets.

"Our goal was to get the turtle off the endangered species list," said Erickson.

Erickson said the schools used to get more exotic animals, but they would never last very long after school got out because there was no natural habitat. So her class got two turtles that are in a fish tank with a little water and some rocks to climb on.

She said the class began discussing the Disney Challenge in November, 2010 and last week, she found out that the class had come in second nationally to a school in Kentucky. They were runners up. In a day of jubilant celebration, Erickson gathered Superintendant Diana Rigby and others in her classroom to say they hadn't won a state prize. "They were all right with it," said Erickson, who then announced that the class had come in second nationally.

To celebrate the huge accomplishment, Thoreau is holding on Tuesday, April 12 from 5 to 7 p.m. Town and state elected officials are scheduled to attend, as well as scientists and turtle specialists, she said.

But the stars of the show will be the students who have worked sometimes for a whole day on researching and analyzing data about the Blanding's turtle. They made charts, graphs and conducted experiments all of which went into a notebook for the challenge. For instance, they wanted to test the supposition that temperature has an effect on turtles' appetite. So they monitored the temperature at nests and correlated it to how many grams the turtles weighed as it became cooler or warmer. Sure enough, a warmer nest made them eat more.

On a recent classroom visit, the students were making nametags, games and other activities for Turtle Night. They cut turtle parts out of paper bags and put them in piles for a visitor to assemble on a paper plate. They printed reports with colored pictures to hand out. They will take orders for T-shirts with a fourth-grade designed turtle on it.

Erickson said the students dove head first into the challenge, working for months to make it rich and interesting. Now their goal is to protect the species in Concord. They visited the Great Meadows and Moore's Pond in back of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery to see nests, even tracked a turtle under the ice. Scientist Brian Windmiller led the class on field trips to various spots in Concord where the turtles are known to live.

"Operation Blanding's Nation" became the class motto.

"They are so motivated," said Erickson. "I'm just the Vanna White," pointing things out. "They are leading the effort."

At one table, Ellery Winkler, Zoe Donovan found picture cards that they downloaded to make a Turtle Memory Game for Turtle Night. Alex McMorrow, John Berkay, Mehak Kang, Ben Wolcott made paper turtles. Lex Viganti wrote a letter to a turtle expert asking him to speak at Turtle Night.

First prize is a trip to Disneyland for three days, while second prize is cash. Erickson said the students were glad they can use the prize money to help the turtles. They plan to buy signs that say "Turtle Crossing," and tiny monitors that can be attached to the turtle shells to track their numbers and whereabouts. The monitors cost $144 each, Erickson said.

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