Envirothon tests Harford students' science skills

Fallston High beats 14 other county teams

May 02, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The C. Milton Wright Envirothon team pressed in around the picnic table, peering into a row of five glass jars containing plant samples. The one they held to the sunlight waved at them tauntingly through the water.

After several moments of flipping through plant charts and conferring, senior Amanda Klapka, 17, asked her teammates, "Do we all agree this is wild celery?"

Her hand rested on the lid, tilting the jar slightly on its edge.

It was a morning to be a little edgy for the 75 Harford students competing last week in the Envirothon, the country's premier high school environmental science contest, which draws students from more than 40 states and several Canadian provinces. The daylong event takes months of preparation and study, and the county competition is battled out each spring in Harford's fields, streams and forests.

Winners get a little cash, scholarship money or savings bonds as they advance through local, state and national contests. But primarily, organizers say, they capture the sort of prestige and practical experience that sets them apart on college applications.

On Wednesday, 15 county teams from 10 public and private schools competed at the 4-H camp near Rocks State Park, with Fallston High taking the top spot, followed by Harford Christian and North Harford High.

The county's reputation in the state contest is strong: A Harford team has taken the title six times in the past 13 years. Joppatowne High has won four, and Fallston High has now won two.

This is not a lightweight overview of plants and trees. Envirothon prides itself on its rigor, including the geometric calculations used to determine forest density and pH testing of soils. Organizers say it is the up-close, hands-on nature of the test that draws high-schoolers in and leads some to pursue environmental careers.

"They're not just sitting in a desk shuffling papers. They're in a soil pit getting their hands dirty," said Gary Davis, district manager of the Harford Soil Conservation District, which sponsors the event.

Joppatowne High environmental biologist and team coach Steve Hillyer said the event helps students connect classroom learning to careers. "Not only do you do the science, but you see how the science can make a difference in the real world."

Hillyer said his students meet two to three times a week after school for several hours to study wildlife, soils, forestry, aquatics and a subject that is chosen each year, called the "fifth topic." This year's is managing natural resources in urban environments.

"Environmental education is, in my opinion, the perfect context for so many different things we're asking kids to be good at in education," said Mark Herzog, assistant supervisor of science for the public schools and director of Harford Glen, a nature center owned by the school system.

Herzog pointed out that the competition focuses on such skills as problem-solving, issues analysis, political and historical perspectives, and articulate debate and presentation.

"The thing that always tops it for me is ... the inherent central concept in the environment is making it better. It's a goal that's larger than the individual. It's on a grander scale, and [students] come to that realization at some point."

The first Envirothon was held in 1979 in York County, Pa. By 1996, nearly three dozen teams from 31 states and two Canadian provinces were competing.

Last year in Maryland, 153 teams - with 964 members from 18 counties - took part in the state contest, according to the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts.

Baltimore's five metropolitan counties held their contests in the past several weeks:

In Carroll, where 12 teams from seven high schools competed April 15, the Venturing Crew 202 Gold Team, a Boy Scout troop team of students from Westminster and Winters Mill high schools, took first place.

In Anne Arundel, seven teams from three schools competed April 20, and South River High won for the third year in a row.

In Baltimore County, 11 teams from six schools competed Monday, and Hereford High's team won for the fourth consecutive year.

In Howard County, where three teams from one school, a home-schoolers group and 4-H Club competed Tuesday, Wilde Lake High School won.

This year, 16 counties are holding contests, according to the soil conservation district. The season began in March in Washington County and continues into the middle of this month. County winners move to the Maryland Envirothon from June 22 to 24 at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg.

West Virginia plays host to the national competition, the 2004 Canon Envirothon, from July 26 to Aug 1.

Tom Trafton, coach of the Fallston team for eight years, said that after track, lacrosse and tennis seasons wrap up - and Advanced Placement course testing is over - the group will be studying Frederick County soil surveys and hiking on the Appalachian Trail to prepare for the state contest.

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