When students participate in Envirothon competitions, ecosystems and the natural world are only part of the many lessons and life skills they gain, according to local coaches.
McClain High School Envirothon Coach Ashley Kesler said, “Overall, I feel like the Envirothon competitions are very positive for students.”
“It really introduces them to their local habitat and ecosystems,” said Whiteoak High School coach Tina Roe.
Students, according to Lynchburg-Clay High School coach Lara Hamilton, begin to notice that nature is “all tied together.”
The North American Envirothon is a competition comprising not only the United States, but also parts of Canada. According to the program’s website, more than 500,000 students across North America compete every year. In Ohio, the competitions are sponsored by the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.
Within each state, regional contests are held which determine state competitors. The first place team from each state then competes at the national level. When in Canada, the national competition is usually held in the southeastern corner of the country, according to Hamilton, who has been coaching Envirothon teams in Lynchburg for 17 years. When the competition has been in the United States, she said, it has been held all over the country.
Last year, Hamilton added, the national Envirothon competition was held at a college near Yellow Stone National Park in Wyoming.
Highland County is a part of the Area 5 region for Ohio’s Envirothon competitions. During the regional competition, Highland County schools compete against students from counties as far north as Delaware County, as far south as Lawrence County, and as far east as Meigs County.
According to Hamilton, Highland County is “the farthest west that Area 5 goes.”
This year, the Area 5 regional competition was held on April 29 at Tar Hollow State Park in Ross County. During these competitions, schools are able to bring up to two teams, with five students on each team.
Every year, competitions are focused around a particular environmental topic. This year’s topic is sustainable agriculture.
During Tuesday’s regional Envirothon, McClain placed 22nd out of 45. Kesler said, “Our team worked hard, but there were a lot of strong teams that attended the competition.”
And even though McClain did not advance to the state level this year, Kesler said, “It was a good learning experience, and we know what to prepare for for next year.”
Lynchburg-Clay brought two teams to the regional competition. Hamilton said the LC Gold team placed fourth and qualified for the state competition. The LC Mustang team placed ninth.
Whiteoak was not eligible to place this year because, Roe said, they did not have enough players to make two full teams. With only seven players, all of whom are freshmen and sophomores, this was a “learning year.”
In an Envirothon, students go to four different stations (wildlife, forestry, aquatics, and soils), where they must answer 25 questions.
“There’s thousands of things you could know,” Hamilton said, but only 25 questions in each category will be asked. “You never know what they’re going to ask.”
Competitions occur outdoors, “rain or shine,” Hamilton said.
During the contest, teams are divided and do not see each other throughout the competition.
The four areas students must learn, Hamilton said, are extensive.
In the aquatics category, students must be able to identify a variety of organisms, such as micro-invertebrates and fish, recognize different plants, and classify different water regions.
When competing in the forestry category, students must be able to identify trees and recognize characteristics of woodlands.
For the wildlife category, students must be able to identify pelts, tracks, and skulls of different creatures. Sometimes, Hamilton added, students also need to identify scat.
“They have to know a lot of facts about animals,” she said.
During the soils test, students must be able to identify soils and determine what those soils would be best to support.
Kesler said the soils category has been the strongest area for McClain’s team.
After the tests are completed, each team is ranked. The top four teams, which this year includes Lynchburg-Clay, then advance to the state level.
This year, the state competition will be held June 9, 10, and 11 at Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County.
Along with the different station tests, teams at this level also give a 20-minute presentation. For the presentation, teams are given an environmental problem and must determine a way to solve it. The judging process during this portion of the competition is completely anonymous.
Hamilton said that within the past four years Lynchburg-Clay has had two teams advance to state, with this year’s team now being the third to make it to that level.
Last year, she said, their team was “only 20 points behind the first place team at state.” Further, Lynchburg-Clay finished in the top 3 percent of those teams who participated at the state level.
Participating in events such as Envirothons, Hamilton said, allows schools to get their name “out there.”
“These kids are ambassadors for the school,” she said, and, when they do well, that success reflects on the school.
Kesler added that Envirothons help schools become “stronger in the science field.”
But preparing for these competitions, according to local coaches, requires hard work and perseverance.
For example, practices at Lynchburg usually begin in January; however, the many snow days this past winter caused a late start. The teams, Hamilton said, began training in February. Practices are one hour every day after school.
“I look forward to doing that with the kids,” Hamilton said.
Along with studying hard, Hamilton said the Lynchburg-Clay Envirothon teams also go on hikes so students can see the subjects outside of textbooks.
“It’s a different thing when they’re out looking at it in real life,” she said.
Roe also said the Whiteoak team uses outdoor experience to study, though she added that there is a variety of ways to prepare for the Envirothon.
Among those, she said, are independent research, examining skulls and other items in the classroom, looking at photographs, going to websites, using CDs, or watching DVDs.
Further, many Envirothon topics, according to Kesler, are also featured in FFA competitions. And studying Envirothon material, for those who are also in FFA, “helps them with those competitions.”
While advancing to the next level is always the ultimate goal, the national Envirothon is unfortunately not an option this year.
Hamilton said the nationwide contest was cancelled due to “money issues.” Her team, she said, was “a bit disappointed” at that news.
Fortunately, Hamilton said coaches have been assured that the national competition is “definitely on for next year.”
Unlike the regional and state competitions, the national contest lasts an entire week. Oral presentations are also involved at that level. In addition, students go on different trips when they are not competing.
“They do lots of fun things,” Hamilton said.
And fun, according to local coaches, is precisely the main goal of every Envirothon.
An Envirothon team, Hamilton said, provides an outlet for students who may not be interested in sports. Roe also said Envirothons offer another extracurricular option for students. Additionally, it is something students can add to applications for colleges or scholarships.
“When you go to practices, it’s a lot like school work … and that’s not a cool thing in today’s society,” Hamilton said. “But these kids really enjoy it.”
Roe added that for those students who are interested in science it’s a “real learning activity.”
Additionally, Envirothons, according to Kesler, force students to “think environmentally.”
“Some of them aren’t aware of what’s outside their door,” Roe said, adding that Envirothon experiences change that.
They “get a much better understanding of nature and for how nature fits together,” Hamilton said.
As an example, Hamilton said that even though each student on her team specializes in a certain area they begin to see that something in aquatics can affect soil, and vice versa.
In addition, at higher levels, students hone their public speaking skills and learn how to “look professional.” Roe also said the competitions teach students communication and teamwork.
Many students who participate in Envirothons, Hamilton added, eventually become park rangers or wildlife conservation officers.
Similarly, Kesler said, “It leads them toward science, agriculture, and environmental fields.” The careers students can find, she added, range from being a logger to being an environmentalist.
And even those who do not find a career in environmental studies still keep the lessons they learned an important part of their lives.
According to Hamilton, “When they grow up, they take their families out and enjoy the natural resources.”
Sarah Allen may be reached at 937-393-3456 or on Twitter @SarahAllenHTG.