Down-to-earth event

Harford County high school students show off their nature knowledge in the annual Envirothon

May 06, 2007|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Reporter

An island nation, coping with the effects of global warming, the depletion of fossil fuels and the loss of its tourism industry, needed help in its search for alternative energy.

A team of environmentalists came to the rescue, recommending crops that would generate ethanol to fuel cruise ships, and wind and solar power to ease the energy crunch.

That team of five Harford Christian School students who solved the problem, part of this year's Envirothon competition, won first place and will represent the county next month in the state phase of the international natural resources competition.

"We had them grow sugar cane for conversion to ethanol that could fuel cruise ships and restore their tourism industry," said Donny McKnight, a senior at the private school in Darlington. "We would also develop wind and solar power. The problem was set years in the future, but it could happen."

The team scored 511 out of a possible 600 and edged out a team from Fallston High by three points. Donny and his four teammates said they are eager, not nervous, about the statewide competition at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore next month.

"We are well-prepared, thanks to our teacher, and I think we can nail it," said senior Emily Ledford. "Everybody on our team is driven and truly interested in the environment."

Harford's 16th annual Envirothon on Wednesday provided 65 students from seven county high schools with an outdoor learning experience and a chance to test their environmental science skills.

"This whole experience has broadened my outlook," Emily said. "I am not a tree hugger, but I recycle, and I am much more aware of the aesthetic value of the world."

The five-member teams, who have studied together for most of the school year, set to work early on a beautiful spring day at Eden Mill Nature Center, a 60-acre park along Deer Creek in Pylesville.

While his classmates at Fallston High were stuck at their desks, senior Scott Lassahn stood in a 3-foot hole and pondered layers of moist soil before deeming the land suitable for soybean cultivation.

"Everyone else at our school is taking classes and tests, but we get to work outside identifying fish, taking a hike up a hill to look at trees or working in dirt," said Scott, who has participated in the competition since he was a freshman. "I have learned so many things that I never knew about Harford County."

Rachel Robinson, an Envirothon alumna who is now a state parks associate, said, "It looks like they are playing in the mud, but they really are doing soil profiles and texture studies and assessing slope and grade. This is the kind of intensive training that goes far beyond what is offered on a regular school day."

Envirothon was started in 1979 by state soil conservationists in Pennsylvania. By 1988, momentum had built for the first national contest, according to the program's Web site.

Harford teams have competed since 1991, and seven of them have moved onto the nationals, with two finishing in the top five. Twenty Maryland school districts are participating this year.

Eden Mill served as an ideal location for the daylong competition that tested knowledge of aquatics, wildlife, soils, forestry and alternative energy. At each station, the teams adhered to a 45-minute time limit, which they used to investigate and solve a problem and complete a written test.

At the aquatics site, they determined water quality by identifying plants, insects and fish taken from nearby sources.

"I felt like I was looking at a lot of weird water worms and wiggling organisms," said North Harford High senior Leslie Barry. "It was hard to remember specific names, but I had fun for some reason."

Organizers create difficult situations and ask tough questions, said Shanna Schoen, park manager at the Anita C. Leight Estuary in Abingdon and one of the Envirothon testers.

"We don't make these tests easy," she said. "They have seen this stuff before, but it's still tough to identify, especially the fish."

The forestry station entailed a half-mile hike uphill to a tree-covered ridge with at least 10 different tree types. A ranger gave each team charts and a set of tools to help measure height and diameter. They also calculated how much lumber a tree would yield, its marketability and the health of the tree stand as well as offer opinions on how some trees had died.

Senior Josh Heinly, the lone male on a North Harford High team, volunteered to do the grunt work although his leather thong sandals were woefully ill-suited for scaling thorn-covered slopes to better gauge tree height. Still, he persevered for his team.

"Students often take this knowledge to great heights," said Dennis Kirkwood, Harford's supervisor of science. "They become more environmentally aware and share their knowledge."

Many Envirothon competitors stay in the field. Three of them, including Todd Grubb, a teacher-coach for the Aberdeen High team, are teaching science in Harford schools. Grubb competed during all four of his North Harford High years and studied earth science at Frostburg State University. He also volunteers at Eden Mill.

"I helped start this nature center and helped build the first trail," he said.

The Harford Christian team will spend the rest of this school year preparing for the state test, poring over scientific journals and practicing techniques before the three-day competition that begins June 19.

"There will be lots of practice and studying after school," said senior Jen Shellem.

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