OXFORD, Ohio — Not all teenagers would be interested in putting away their cell phones to spend a humid week tromping around an Ohio farm, testing their knowledge of natural resources and brainstorming ways to turn waste products into resources.
But the teenagers who gathered for the International Envirothon in late July are a special group.
“These students are the top of the top,” said Jennifer Brooks, Envirothon program manager for the National Conservation Foundation.
The week-long gathering was the highest level of competition for participants. The location of the international competition is rotated to a different location each year. This year, it was held July 24-29 at the Miami University campus and at the university’s Ecology Research Center, near Oxford, Ohio.
The National Conservation Foundation coordinated the event with the help of the Ohio Federation of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and many other local sponsors and volunteers. Planning and preparing for the competition started two years ago and involved Soil and Water Conservation Districts from across Ohio, said Irene Moore, district administrator for the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District.
She estimated that more than 60 SWCD volunteers turned out to help the week of the competition, in addition to the many who helped with preparation ahead of time.
Moore, who plans to retire this winter after a 35-year career, said she didn’t want to miss the chance to be involved with the international competition after helping coordinate local and state envirothons for many years.
“I stayed around for this,” she said, gesturing toward the students gathering for lunch during the opening day of this year’s competition.
This year, 40 teams representing states and provinces in the U.S. and Canada gathered to compete. In all, about 25,000 students from the U.S., Canada and China participate in the National Conservation Foundation’s Envirothon program each year.
To make it to the International Envirothon, they must progress through local and regional competitions to be selected to represent their state or province. Students compete in teams of five members and are evaluated on their knowledge in five categories: soils, aquatic ecology, wildlife, forestry and a current environmental issue.
For 2022, the current issue was “Waste to Resources.” This year was the first in-person international competition since 2019. The event had to be canceled in 2020 due to COVID and last year, the competition was held virtually.
Teams from China were still unable to attend this year due to COVID-related travel restrictions.
The International Envirothon starts with a day of training to acquaint participants with local environmental conditions. Then the teams are tested on their knowledge and they also prepare an oral presentation on a real-world conservation issue, Moore said. The team representing Massachusetts placed first in this year’s competition. Maryland’s team placed second and Florida’s team placed third. Smithfield Foods and other sponsors provided more than $30,000 in scholarship awards for the top scoring teams.
Envirothon training and competition gives high school students a chance to learn about environmental issues and conservation-related careers, said Keith Owen, director of education for the National Association of Conservation Districts. “This is the start of a career pipeline,” he said.
The envirothon program is also a benefit to students who end up following other careers because it teaches them teamwork and helps them learn to look at various sides of an issue, said Brooks.
“We’re not teaching them what to think. We’re teaching them how to think,” she said.
Gaining an understanding of environmental issues is important as well, she said. “They’re going to be voters.”
While envirothon participation is the beginning of a career path for some students, for others, it’s a way to explore interests, Brooks said.
Tristen Hallett, a member of the team representing New Brunswick, Canada, is especially interested in the forestry component of the competition.
“Botany is almost an obsession for me,” he said. He’s considering careers related to forestry, but whatever he does, he wants to work outdoors.
Daphne Cannon, a 2022 graduate of Centerville High School in Ohio, said envirothon competition helped her settle on a college major. She’s a member of the team representing Ohio at the international level and will be starting at Ohio University later this year with a major in environmental science and sustainability. She especially likes working together with her envirothon teammates to find solutions to environmental issues.
“It’s super fun because it involves a lot of teamwork,” she said.
Savanna Prescott is also following her envirothon participation into a college major. She’s a 2022 graduate of Spartanburg High School in and a member of the team representing South Carolina who will be studying environmental science in college. One of her high school teachers recruited her to participate on the school’s envirothon team, but she didn’t realize a first how far she could go with the competition, she said.
Envirothon participation can help students discover new interests as well. Chloe Greek is a sophomore at Hamilton High School in Montana and a member of the team representing her state.
She said she only got involved with her school’s envirothon team because her older sister talked her into it. At first, she was reluctant to study soils but then realized how interesting they are and how much she enjoyed envirothon competition.
“I’m definitely going to do it again,” she said.
More information on the National Conservation Foundation’s Envirothon program is available through local Soil and Water Conservation Districts or online at envirothon.org.
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