Howard youths match wits with natural world

April 27, 1995|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

A small deer antler rested yesterday on the tailgate of Kent Carpenter's pickup truck, among a bunch of wings, stuffed birds and animal skulls. It was a tool in testing about 40 Howard County students in the county's first "Envirothon," a nationwide competition challenging students to become more aware of the earth, water, plants and animals.

Mr. Carpenter, a wildlife technician with the state Department of Natural Resources, asked the middle and high school students to tell the age of the deer from which the antler came. While they wrestled with this, he turned aside to confide with a grin: "A month ago, I told them that there's no way to tell a deer's age from its antler."

Even the winning team of Boy Scouts had trouble with that question, as well as with identifying a small stuffed seashore bird. The boys incorrectly labeled it a sandpiper, but it turned out to belong to the genus Gallinago, the common snipe.

Despite their occasional confusion, the Boy Scouts -- from Troop 613, based in Columbia's Oakland Mills village -- offered enough correct answers to win the three-hour competition at the University of Maryland Research and Education Farm on Folly Quarter Road near Clarksville.

Dubbed the Raiders by the test coordinator, the Scouts will be Howard County's first representative to the state Envirothon May 18 to 20 in Garrett County.

The winner of that competition will represent Maryland in the national Envirothon in Idaho in August.

Yesterday, the Howard teams, each of which had five or more members, bore the names of popular 1960s rock bands. Most were from Glenelg and Hammond high schools and Dunloggin and Patapsco middle schools.

The winning Scouts had little trouble with the forestry and aquatics parts of the test, identifying the correct stream-inhabiting flora and fauna and reading the bark and buds on tree branches. But when the the Scouts' soil expert, 14-year-old Justin Earp of Clarksville, jumped into a 4-foot-deep trench, they looked as if they might be in trouble.

Using a large screwdriver, Justin dug out a fistful of reddish-brown earth from the side of the pit. "What is the texture of the soil at 35 inches?" another Scout read from ground level. "Is it, A -- coarse, gritty, sandy? B -- medium, loamy, smooth? C -- moderately fine, sticky, good ribbon?"

Justin squeezed the clod between his fingers, then sprinkled water on it from a small white bottle. He correctly answered B.

Two questions later, however, he doubted himself a bit.

This question asked whether stoniness, poor rainfall absorption or a shallow soil layer above bedrock would be a major problem for growing crops. Justin had answered D -- none of the above. But there were some stones, so on the advice of other Scouts he crossed out his answer and picked stoniness instead. He was wrong.

"Unfortunately, we left our neutron back-scatter analyzer at home," quipped Jim Lay of Columbia's Long Reach village, father of Raider Chris Lay, 14, referring to a high-tech soil analysis tool he said was employed once on a U.S. space mission.

The competition, said Clara Li, 13, a member of an all-girl team from the Shadow Ridge Lake subdivision in western Ellicott City, "really just makes you more aware and self-conscious about the environment."

One example of that, she said, was learning through her team's project, completed before yesterday's event. They studied the availability of fresh water, how it gets to the shower or toilet, and where it goes afterward.

"It's, like, people think we have an endless supply of water, but we don't," said Sarah Wakamiya, 12, another member of Clara's team.

The competition gave students something they can take home to parents -- environmental information that most older people have never been taught. "It exposes the kids to something that I know I was not exposed to in high school," said Bill Bond, the DNR's forester for Howard and Montgomery counties.

Pat Murphy, a conservation planner for the Howard County Soil Conservation District, was pleased with the county's first effort with the contest. "I think we are going to have a lot of kids who are going to go back and do it again next year," she said.

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