For the first time in the four years he has been station representative at the Carroll County Envirothon, Tom Robertson was able to use real branches with real leaves for his forestry test.
On April 25, several branches, including two types of evergreen, were spread out on the picnic tables waiting to be identified by the high school teams before they tramped into the woods to measure trees.
"It's good for the kids to see that rather than the photos," said Robertson, Carroll County forestry and facilities bureau general services, of the samples. "I try to bring in natural trees — the kind in backyards — common woodland trees."
A total of five stations, including forestry, wildlife, aquatics, soils and a "common issue," had to be completed by each of the teams attending the county's 2012 Envirothon at Bear Branch Nature Center in Westminster.
Since 1992, the Carroll Envirothon has been hosted by the Carroll Soil Conservation District. Students from all eight high schools, as well as Boy Scout Venturing Crew 202 (a high adventure unit that's also open to girls), are invited to test their knowledge "in the field."
"It's a really nice opportunity for the kids," said Jennifer Kemp, soil conservation technician for Maryland Department of Agriculture. "Everyone here is learning something, showing what they learned and are able to apply it."
Venturing Crew 202 has placed first in the competition every year since 2008. The team prepares for the competition by studying after school together under the guidance of Claudia Lewis, a retired science teacher.
"When I took over I thought 'this is a shoo-in,' as I taught science all those years," Lewis said about coaching the Envirothon club. "I was wrong. I spent the first years studying."
"It really works out nice," said Charles "Ed" Null, district manager for the MDA Resource Conservation Operation of the Carroll Soil Conservation District. "They get some hands-on experience ... to learn different areas of the environment."
Students participating in the Envirothon have been studying since September. As part of this extracurricular training, teenagers identify and categorize living resources, perform soil surveys, identify issues related to trees and other complex natural resource issues.
The program focuses on a special environmental issue that changes from year to year. This year's issue is nonpoint source pollution and low-impact development.
"The program provides these students with an extraordinary opportunity to work with environmental experts in the field to better understand Maryland's natural resources," said Maryland Agriculture Secretary Buddy Hance. "Maryland needs more young people to seek out and train for careers in agriculture and natural resources."
After completing three stations, the schools broke for a lunch provided by 2012 Envirothon contributors. The teams gathered both inside and out to relax and discuss the morning events.
In the end, Venturing Crew 202 again came out on top of the competition, with Century High finishing second.
As the winner, Venturing Crew will go on to compete at the Maryland Envirothon, scheduled for June 20-21 at St. James School in Washington County.
Then, the winner of the Maryland Envirothon will represent the state later this summer at the 2012 Canon Envirothon at Susquehanna University in Selinsgove, Pa., where more than 250 teenagers from the United States and Canada will compete for $125,000 in scholarships and prizes. All the schools enjoyed the challenges of the day.
"I like it. It is something I want to get involved in," said Kelli Maus, 14, a freshman at Liberty High School, of the Envirothon. "I like to be outside. It's hands-on learning."
Members of the South Carroll team discussed their opinion of the hardest station.
"Soils," said Jordan Gregory, 16, a junior at South Carroll. "It is just hard. All the different layers and the runoff and how it works and why."
The North Carroll team also found soil to be challenging, said coach Hannah McNett.
"It's hard to make soil exciting," McNett said. "I personally like soils myself ... but trying to get that interest in them is a little more difficult."
The soil station also involved descending into a pit to see the layers of soil, which is hard to duplicate in a classroom.
"It is difficult to dig on school property," McNett said. "You can't prepare for that."