Massachusetts Envirothon at the Quabbin Reservoir a test for high school student teams

Last modified: Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Some 250 students from across the state will gather at the Quabbin Reservoir Thursday to participate in a unique competition that will test their environmental knowledge, field work, problem-solving abilities and communication skills, as they take part in the 28th annual Massachusetts Envirothon.

For the past year, high school students in the state, with the help of their Envirothon coaches, have been diligently preparing for the competition which includes four specific fields of study that are standard to the event, and one current environmental issue that changes every year.

“This year the current issue is ‘Climate Crisis: Taking Action in Massachusetts Communities,’ ” said Diane Petit, public affairs officer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Matthew A. Beaton, secretary of the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, said that climate change is one of the most challenging issues Massachusetts faces now and in the future.

“I am pleased that Envirothon gives students from across Massachusetts the opportunity to learn about the environment and brainstorm ways to prepare our state for the effects of climate change,” Beaton said.

Will Snyder, of the University of Massachusetts Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment, is the chairman of the steering committee for the Massachusetts Envirothon. That committee, along with state agencies, helps decide the annual issue.

“When we choose the current issue, we want to make sure that it is relevant for every Massachusetts community,” Snyder said. “We picked the climate crisis because it is very relevant and timely.”

Petit said that with 31 student teams, coaches, judges, and volunteers, there likely will be over 500 people at the Quabbin participating in the event.

The program is governed by the National Conservation Foundation. Individual teams are often sponsored by school clubs, local businesses, 4-H groups and local Granges. None of this year’s teams are from Hampshire County.

This year’s sponsors are the U.S. Forestry Service, the Environmental Business Council of New England, the Massachusetts State Grange and National Grid.

“We get a pretty good diversity of teams. Some come from urban areas, others from come the suburbs and some are from rural parts of the state,” Petit said. “That diversity makes for interesting different perspectives on environmental issues.”

Petit also noted that there are 40 international environmental professionals who are visiting from various Latin American countries for a month, and working in several state and federal agencies.

“They will be at the Envirothon both to learn and to talk about what their countries are doing to deal with climate change,” Petit said

The competition

Teams will work their way through “eco-stations” that focus on four fields of study including soils, forestry, water and wildlife. Each station will have a specialist who will test the students on their knowledge. The teams must answer written questions, and take part in hands-on activities.

Once these are completed, each team will offer a presentation on their research on the climate crisis.

Every year, Al Averill, a state soil scientist with Natural Resources Conservation Service, prepares a large pit for the hands-on study of the properties, characteristics and variability of soil. Once he digs the pit, and records the data from that site, he then devises a test that each team must take.

“Studying the soil is the kind of thing that they would need to know in order to do things like the delineate wetlands, measure water-table level, and even figure out if a house with a basement could be built in a certain area,” Averill said one day last week as he was preparing the pit.

The forestry station will display different types of woods and tree species for identification. Teams will also have to know how to use field instruments to gather information on the height and circumference of trees. They may also be tested on issues such as forest history, forest ecology, fires, the urban forests, management options, and forestry techniques.

A wildlife station will feature a selection of a few small live animals as well as pelts, track casts, and other wildlife displays. Topics will include habitat, biodiversity, food webs, nutrient exchange, population dynamics, rare and endangered species, laws and regulations, wildlife management, diseases and resources, and legislation.

At the water station, students will be asked a variety of questions which may include topics such as water chemistry, the hydrological cycle, aquifers, the movement of groundwater, watersheds, streams and rivers, wetlands, lakes and ponds, estuaries, oceans, and water pollution, remediation and water quality management.

All of the preparation, the contents of the eco-stations and tests are designed to give students tangible hands-on information that they can apply in real-life situations.

Current issue presentations

After the four eco-stations, teams will present their research and findings on the climate crisis, as well as their recommended actions to effectively address the issue. The group presentations are about 15 minutes and are done entirely without electronics of any kind.

Many teams take what they learn in the current issue research and apply it in a community action project. Teams that demonstrate high research standards in their current issue work, or apply their Envirothon learning in a service project, are eligible for an Envirothon Community Award.

Petit said that the community action projects make the research meaningful and useful at the local level. “Over one-half of the teams this year have done community research and community action in their own cities and towns.”

Ten environmental professionals from a variety of state and federal environmental agencies including the Department of Conservation and Recreation, the Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as some nonprofit organizations, such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society, will serve as judges. Beaton will be one of the judges.

The winning high school team will move on to represent Massachusetts at the North American Envirothon Competition, a week-long event from July 27 to Aug. 2, hosted this year by Missouri State University in Springfield, Missouri. Each year more than 500,000 young people across the country participate in the event.

Environmental education

The North American Envirothon is a program of the National Conservation Foundation. Created in 1979 by the Pennsylvania Soil and Water Conservation District, it was originally known as the Environmental Olympics.

The event gave high school students a hands-on opportunity to explore a variety of environmental issues, natural resources, and conservation strategies. It grew quickly throughout Pennsylvania, and in 1988 the state hosted the first national Envirothon. Massachusetts and Ohio were the first other states to take part in the competition.

Massachusetts hosted the second national Envirothon competition in Spencer, with Maine, Ohio, and Pennsylvania participating.

The Quabbin hosted one other Massachusetts Envirothon in 1996, and Hampshire College in Amherst hosted the 2002 Canon Envirothon, so-called at that time as Canon U.S.A. Inc. had become the event’s title sponsor.

The program is funded by organizations including the American Clean Water Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, local conservation districts, the U.S. Forest Service, and the National Association of Conservation Districts.

While the Envirothon does not yet track participants into their college and or professional careers, Snyder said there is evidence that the event serves as a springboard for young people who want to pursue an environmental education.

During the first week of November, UMass sponsors a workshop that focuses on several environmental themes including the current issue for the upcoming Envirothon. Participants are invited to the workshop and Snyder said he tries to involve UMass students to give presentations and provide information.

“They just come out of the woodwork to help, and so many of them say they want to do it because they were involved in the Envirothon in high school,” Snyder said.

Event coordinator Brita Dempsey said the workshop is often the first time that the high school students get to see the kind of environmental programs and research that is being done at the college level.

“The future comes from engaged, scientifically literate citizens who care about their communities and the environment,” said Snyder. “The Envirothon is more than just a competition about environmental knowledge. It’s a gathering of the environmental community of Massachusetts. It aims to prepare the next generation for the stewardship work that needs to be done.”


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