Features & Special Reports

Courtesy photo

Chris Mohnke, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, left the Coast Guard earlier this year as a Lieutenant junior grade after five years of service.

He learned to be a leader, met his best friends in the Coast Guard.

“It’s hard to gauge how much the service has changed me as a person because up until very recently my entire adult life has been in the Coast Guard,” he said.

Courtesy photo

John Stakeley served with the Army National Guard for 13 and a half years,  and for the last three years as a Captain with the U.S. Army Reserves.

While he didn’t have one defining moment, Stakeley said the Army established a trust and a bond he hasn’t experienced anywhere else. He said that was especially true when he was deployed to Iraq in 2005.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

It’s a sunny afternoon on Bell Avenue in North Braddock, and a bunch of kids have gathered around a wooden table set up in what a year ago was just another empty lot.

Now the lot is a kid-driven community garden, and on the table is a microchip called a MaKey MaKey attached to a laptop. Wires that stick out from the MaKey MaKey are clamped onto cherry tomatoes. When the kids squeeze the tomatoes, different musical notes play.

Chris Squier / 90.5 WESA

The Emerald Ash Borer has all but wiped out ash trees in and around the Pittsburgh region, and even though the insect only goes after one tree species, the effects will be felt on a much wider scale.

Pretty soon you won’t be able to tell dead trees from live trees as leaves begin to fall. For now, as you’re driving around Pennsylvania, you can look out over stands of trees and see lush, green landscape – but – that landscape is dotted in many areas with dead trees.

The Associated Press

Roberto Clemente died on Dec. 31, 1972, but you’d never know it from the hundreds of people who show up to Pirates games wearing jerseys with his name and number — 21 — printed on them. 

Now two musicals will trace the life of "The Great One" from his childhood in Puerto Rico to his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates from the mid-50’s to his untimely death at age 38.

Composer Alki Steriopoulous to spend nearly a decade writing a musical about Clemente.

It's called "21."

Inside the Halls of Government, Gas Industry Makes its Pitch

Sep 11, 2014
Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

Greg Vitali has been a state representative for more than 20 years. He saw the rise of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania mainly through the lens of the state Capitol. About five or six years ago, he says, lobbyists for the industry began showing up. And they’ve never left.

“Drillers have this constant presence in Harrisburg  You go to any committee meeting, related to drilling, you see representatives from American Petroleum Institute, you see lobbyists from Range Resources,” Vitali says. “They’re just always here.”

Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

In February, Governor Tom Corbett announced his intention to balance the state budget, in part, using millions of dollars in projected revenues from new oil-and-gas drilling leases in state parks and forests. It was the first public acknowledgment of Corbett’s plans to lift a 2010 moratorium on leasing.

But records uncovered in an investigation by 90.5 WESA and the Allegheny Front suggest the issue may have been under active discussion much earlier.

Martha Rial / Special to 90.5 WESA / The Allegheny Front

As the agency that oversees 2.5-million acres of public land in Pennsylvania formed policy on drilling in state forests, the agency's head met frequently with oil and gas lobbyists in the capitol, including stops at upscale restaurants.

That's according to the calendar of Richard Allan, former Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

Flooding the Zone: Gas Industry Pours Millions into Lobbying PA

Sep 8, 2014
Wally Gobetz / via Flickr Creative Commons

Barry Kauffman sees similarities between the oil and gas business and the business of ‘government relations’--lobbying.

In fracking, gas companies inject water, sand and chemicals underground to extract gas. In politics, Kaufmann says, you use campaign contributions and lobbying money, “inject it under high pressure under the legislature, to extract public policy, from which you profit. The two processes are actually very much parallel,” says Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a non-partisan, non-profit government watchdog group.

Bob Studebaker / 90.5 WESA

Poet Jessica Server likes the sense of freedom she gets from writing and appreciates opportunities to present her work to audiences. She considers it “an act of engagement that’s a step of the creative process.”

“What I’ve always loved about writing is that it’s sort of a vehicle that can take you anywhere,” she said.  

Server, who lives in Friendship, said the most important qualities for a writer, especially a poet, are curiosity and awareness.

Family, friends, faith leaders and elected officials gathered at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill Tuesday to say goodbye to former Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff. She was remembered for her love of the city, and her grandmotherly, yet tough demeanor.

Sophie Masloff’s casket, draped with an American flag, was carried past mourners as the congregation sang “America the Beautiful.”

Chris Squier / 90.5 WESA

Whether a cultural center can also be a hotel is one of the questions at the heart of the fight over the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

This week a group of foundations made a case for their $7.2 million bid to buy and maintain the center as it is. A hotel developer, bidding $9.5 million, believes the two entities can co-exist.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

Poison ivy, bug bites, allergies — just hearing those words can make you want to scratch. But even though we all itch, and we all scratch, we don’t know very much about what is happening in our brains when we do so.

New work by researchers, including one in Pittsburgh, is attempting to figure it out.

courtesy LiveLight

Say you have a large volume of digital video — hours of nanny-cam footage, perhaps, or a wedding reception.

And it’s boring, deadly boring. 

But suppose that, somewhere on that tape, something interesting does happen. Maybe it's just five seconds’ worth of attention-worthy images, buried under a mountain of redundant and predictable ones.

Mathieu Plourde / Flickr

There are more than 7 million students around the world enrolled in some 12,000 Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, with topics ranging from oil and acrylic painting techniques to developmental artificial intelligence.

But, MOOCs aren’t your typical online classes. They’re free; they don’t go towards earning a degree; and, rarely are there assignments, but therein lies the problem.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Zer068 is an identifying number for convicts from the 3rd District of Pennsylvania who go to federal prison.

It’s also the name of a fledgling company.

Founder Daniel Bull is trying to walk the line between honesty about his past and giving himself and others a second chance.

Zer068 has been created specifically to help people with felonies or crimes, a past they would like to forget, overcome that past," Bull said. "We get it, we’re there, we understand what you’re about and we’re here to help.”

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules designed to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal plants by 30 percent by 2030. 

The proposal has been hotly debated since then, and one of only four public input sessions nationwide begins Thursday morning in Pittsburgh. 

Because the power industry is responsible for more than a third of all carbon emissions in the U.S, it seemed to many to be the best place to start. EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency received approximately 300,000 public comments before the hearings began.

Photo by Norton Gusky CC BY 4.0

Summer camp — it’s not just for kids anymore. 

Teachers from around the Pittsburgh area and from as far away as Alabama this week attended the STEAM Innovation Summer Institute at South Fayette Intermediate School to learn how to embed robotics, computational thinking and game design into their curricula.  

Amidst lights flashing  and lots of beeps, elementary school teachers are playing with, or rather experimenting with, littleBits — tiny circuit boards engineered to snap together with magnets.

Chris Squier / 90.5 WESA

It’s early on a sunny summer morning and Damien Martinez Coro is leading a group of young ballerinas through a rigorous dance routine at the Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh. 

As he moves through the studio, he keeps time by snapping his fingers while yelling commands and adjusting the girls’ forms.

The dance school in Bethel Park is a far reach from his hometown of Matanzas, Cuba.

Courtesy photo

Teresa Ferguson was not on Facebook before October 2008. Now she finds it indispensable.

Ferguson uses the site to manage the Facebook page of her daughter Ginny Kleker, who after years of battling a deep depression, ended her life at age 31.

Shortly after her daughter’s death, Ferguson accessed Ginny’s Facebook profile and posted a soul-baring letter describing her daughter's vibrant personality and mental health struggles. She also shared her thoughts as a mother about Ginny's suicide.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

People often think of the library as a place to sit quietly while reading or studying.

But the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh is challenging that stereotype by turning the library into a creative hub for teens.

It was the second week of June, and Pittsburgh Public Schools had been out of session for two days. And yet, half a dozen teenagers and pre-teens were sitting around a table, enthusiastically engaging in a lesson about ancient Egypt.

“What do we know about Egypt and why was it such a big deal?” asked Oliva Hric, museum educator with the Carnegie Library of Natural History. “Can you think of anything in the landscape that maybe would make Egypt a really great place to live?”

“Because they were on the Nile River they could have had a good water supply,” answered 12-year-old Jonathan Freeman, clearly familiar with the concept.

Freeman and the other teens weren’t at summer school; they were at The Labs at the Carnegie library’s East Liberty branch.

Only 17 percent of parents believe reading is a top summer priority for their children.

That’s according to Reading is Fundamental (RIF) and Macy’s, which released a survey regarding parents’ attitude’s towards reading Wednesday.

The survey also showed that children spend almost three times as many hours weekly watching TV or playing video games as they do reading during the summer.

Kathryn Heffernan, Pittsburgh’s RIF assistant director of communications and development, said accessibility to books is one of the issues.

Josh Raulerson / 90.5 WESA

  Like any English professor, Clint Benjamin spends a lot of his time grading papers.

“There’s a mountain – a teetering Matterhorn of papers at the end of the weekend, or during the week,” Benjamin said. “You’ve just gotta get through them.”

By his own estimate, Benjamin spends 30 to 40 hours a week on grading alone. He also has to attend meetings, answer emails, keep office hours, and commute between the Community College of Allegheny County and Duquesne University campuses, where in a typical week he prepares and teaches five sections’ of English and writing classes.

As the school year ends, summer learning loss, or "summer slide," might begin.  According to the National Summer Learning Association, the loss amounts to about two months in math for all students and two months in reading for low-income students, while unequal access to summer learning opportunities might  account for half the achievement gap between low- and high-income students.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Like many older industrial cities, the Pittsburgh region has its share of blight. According to the most recent data from the 2010 census, there are more than 50,000 vacant houses in Allegheny County.

For more than a century, federal, state and city governments have tried to address the issue. Today, a new generation of tools is being used in attempts to clean up blighted neighborhoods.

If a city were a human body, then blight is a disease, according to Aggie Brose, deputy director of the Bloomfield Garfield Corporation.

Students Learn from Trout in the Classroom, And Outdoors

May 23, 2014
Kara Holsopple / The Allegheny Front

A 55-gallon fish tank sits to the side of Frank Todd’s 8th grade classroom at Moon Area Middle School, west of Pittsburgh. The water inside is so cold you can’t even see into the tank because of the water collecting on the outside.

Todd’s using the condensation to teach about how gases and liquids behave.  It’s 52 degrees in the tank because that’s the temperature needed to sustain Brook trout. The tank is home to about 100 brook trout fingerlings—juvenile fish about the length of a finger.

90.5 WESA's Michael Lynch

When Erick Rivas arrived in Pittsburgh last week, he had one thing on his mind: “la comida.”

“I really enjoyed trying different types of food,” he said through a translator. “Being friends with the teens here was a great experience.”

The 15-year-old is one of six students visiting the U.S. from Quito, Ecuador as part of the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s Scaling the Walls/Escalanda Paredas cultural exchange program.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

On a recent Thursday night, a group of barefoot people are moving through a yoga practice at Bend Yoga’s studio in downtown Pittsburgh.

It’s a yoga class for people with traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder — or both. Among them is Chris Ohleger, who said yoga has benefited him in ways no other treatments or therapies have.

Getting Students to Grow, Eat Local Foods

May 2, 2014

Food service directors, district officials and farmers are gathering at a conference in Pittsburgh today to talk about getting more locally grown produce into cafeterias. Schools around the country are now required to offer fruits and vegetables.

But it can be a challenge to get kids to actually eat the healthier items.  Schools that are having success in the cafeteria say they’re making food part of the regular curriculum. 

Deanna Garcia / 90.5 WESA

“A diorama on steroids.”

That's how Susan Mellon describes what she’s doing in her Springdale Junior and Senior High classroom, where students are combining poetry with computer technology and engineering.

“Kids tend to be a little intimidated by poetry, so I thought this would take something they’re intimidated by and don’t like and make it fun,” said Mellon, a gifted support coordinator at the school.