Students touched soil samples, tested water quality, identified tree species.
The best of the state's Envirothon teams converged on Harford Glen Environmental Education Center last week to put their scientific knowledge to the test. The high school students from 19 Maryland counties were competing for the state championship.
Harford Christian School, a Darlington-based private school, took the top prize Thursday after scoring 525 points out of 600. Harford Christian will represent the state for the 2008 Canon Envirothon, the national competition that will be held in Flagstaff, Ariz., in July.
Organizers consider the 18th annual environmental competition a way to introduce ecological matters to young people, while students say that it's an educational experience beyond the textbook with real-world application.
It's an activity that Travis Mattingly, a rising senior from St. Mary's County, has participated in since his freshman year.
"It's a very hands-on way to learn about environmental impact," Mattingly said. "I was interested in majoring in biology or environmental science ... I'm kind of a nerd, I guess."
Teams of five students take written tests in the subjects of soil, forestry, aquatics, wildlife and a fifth topic that is determined every year. In exams, they have to determine whether a soil sample is suitable for agriculture, based on its slope, permeability and drainage. They also have to examine the health of a stream by surveying the types of insects, the fish, the flow of the stream and the temperature.
"The material covering all of that is very thick," said Elena Takaki, a Department of Natural Resources program manager. "What does it mean? Words are meaningless unless it applies to the real-world situation. They're taking content and applying it, and what it means to the environment of Maryland."
For their fifth topic, the students assessed the impact of recreational activity on natural resources, how human activities such as mountain climbing, white water rafting, or paddling would affect the natural environment. They were given a hypothetical setting where students determined what recreational activity best suited the area.
It wasn't all work during the students' three days at Harford Glen. The students and their advisers stayed at the facilities, taking night hikes and holding camp fires.
"It really is like a summer camp," said Kevin Dodge, a professor of natural resources and wildlife technology at Garrett College, who has been involved with the Envirothon for 16 years. "Unfortunately it's only for two to three days."
Students who have gone through the competition have parlayed their interest into careers in environmental consulting, government jobs in natural resources and forestry, and institutions like the Smithsonian, organizers said.
"It gets the students out of the classroom and into the field and sparks their interest," said Craig Hartsock, a co-chair of the Maryland Envirothon.
State soil conservationists in Pennsylvania started Envirothon in 1979. Nine years later, the momentum had built for the first national contest, according to the program's Web site.
Harford teams have competed since 1991, and seven have gone to the national competiton. This year, students from Harford Christian School will move on to the national competition.
Ada Stambaugh, the adviser at Harford Christian School, which was representing the county, said the competition is a conducive experience for students.
"People don't realize the importance of soil," she said. "They come to the class calling it dirt, and after attending a few workshops, that quickly changes."
1. Harford Christian School (Harford) 525.33
2. Allegany High School (Allegany) 509.33
3. Venturing Crew 202 (Carroll) 505.67