The five girls stood in a muddy trench about 3 feet deep at Broad Creek Camp near Dublin. Their task: measure the topsoil at the spot.
In another part of the camp, another group of youths used a probe todig into the ground along a stream and pull up a soil sample.
They wanted to determine if they were in a wetlands area.
Meanwhile, another group studied a tree to search for signs of wildlife. They find owl droppings, bird feathers and fur.
Those were some ofthe activities featured in the county's first Envirothon, a competition to test high school students' knowledge of the environment.
About 50 students from nine schools in the county competed on forestry,aquatics, wetlands, soils and wildlife topics at the Broad Creek event on Friday.
"We hope to build up the enthusiasm in the environment that we have been get ting in the schools," said Dennis Kirkwood, one of Envirothon's organizers.
The students spent the last several months preparing for the competition, studying on their own and attending workshops sponsored by the competition's organizers.
In theend, the team from Joppatowne High School won first place.
The North Harford and Havre de Grace teams came in second and third, respectively.
Joppatowne's team will compete at the state Envirothon contest next month in Kent County.
The winner of the state event willcompete in a national event in August.
The local competition was sponsored by the Harford Soil Conservation District. Park rangers, foresters, educators and other specialists helped oversee the contest.
The competition required students to conduct hands-on field work and then take a written test on their studies for each of five topics.
In the soils section, for example, students had to get into a trench to measure the thickness of the topsoil and bedrock.
They had to name the kinds of soils and decide if those soils are suitable forfarming, development and landfills.
In other sections, students had to identify trees, aquatic fish and insects, and types of vegetation in wetlands.
They also had to decide how much lumber a certain tree would produce and list the predators of deer.
Many of the students participating in the county Envirothon are members of ecology and environment clubs at their schools.
Others have participated incommunity environmental projects, such as recycling, planting trees and cleaning streams. Some are considering environmental careers.
"(The contest) gives me an opportunity to talk to professionals and see about their jobs," said Stephanie Maines, a junior at Harford Technical High School, who is thinking about becoming a forest ranger.
"They're able to tell things that I would have to do."
Students said it's important for youths to learn about the environment, becausethey will be the ones responsible for protecting it in the future.
"Today (the environment) is a big thing," said Scott Hash, a Havre de Grace High School senior.
"People are coming to their senses that something is wrong with the environment. It's really up to us to fix it."
Colleen Grady, one of Scott's Havre de Grace classmates, said the Envirothon helps students realize what makes up the environment -- from the smallest insect to the tallest tree.
"You see the trees, but you don't always try to name them," she said.
"You walk on the soil, but you don't stop to analyze it."
"Besides, it's fun."