Pouring rain and cool temperatures didn't dampen the spirits of about 75 county high school students who were dressed in makeshift rain gear created from garbage bags or in ponchos.
The teenagers sloshed through mud and water to complete a series of activities at the Harford County 4-H Camp in Street. They were there to identify water bugs and wildlife, to test the texture of soil, and determine the height of trees.
"This is the only program that I know of offered to high school students in the county that takes kids out of the classroom and gets them into the dirt and the streams to learn," said Gary Davis, district manager of the Harford Soil Conservation District, which sponsors the program.
The students were participating in the 17th annual Harford County Environthon, a problem-solving natural resource competition started in 1979 in Pennsylvania.
The winner of the competition advances to the state championship, scheduled for June 17-19 at the Harford Glen Environmental Education Center in Bel Air. The winning team at the state event will go on to the national competition in Arizona.
The county competition included students from eight public high schools and Harford Christian School. Each school brought an A team to compete, and six of the schools brought a B team to train for competition next year.
For the second year in a row, the team from Harford Christian School won the event. The school also set records.
The team scored 533 out of a possible 600 points, and for the first time in the county event's history, Harford Christian won every category, said Mark Herzog, assistant supervisor of science for the Harford County public schools and manager of Harford Glen.
To participate, the students sign up in the fall or they are recruited, Herzog said.
In the late spring, the teams compete in the program that includes an oral presentation and a test in each of five categories -- soils, wildlife, forestry, aquatics, and a fifth category determined each year by the state that hosts the national competition. This year, students had to complete a project that dealt with the use of public recreation lands in an environmentally friendly manner.
As the students complete each task, they are awarded points for correct answers. They can receive 600 points -- 100 each for the five categories and 100 for their oral presentation.
The experience helps the students gain knowledge about their environment that they can apply throughout their lives, Herzog said.
"The importance of the competition underlying all of the fun is that it's an application of knowledge for some benefit," Herzog said. "They are learning how to compromise. We give the kids hard tasks and let them debate and make mistakes."
Colin Mayo said he saw the program as a way to hone skills he learned in school.
"There are some things we're doing out here that are pretty tough," said Mayo, 18, a senior at Bel Air High School. "But most of the activities allowed me to refine and put my skills into practice."
On a recent morning, the students trekked to each of the five stations where they were given brief instructions and then tests that had to be completed in 50 minutes.
At the forestry station, students were given a series of activities relating to what a forester would do if he worked for a private landowner or company, said Ronald Hendricksen, chairman of the Harford County Forest District Conservancy Board, which ran the forestry station.
The students were given a clipboard, a test, and some tools -- a tape used to measure diameter; a hypsometer, a device used to measure altitude; a prism; and a clinometer, an optical device for measuring angles of slope, and the elevation of an object.
They measured the diameter and height of trees, as well as the number of logs that could be cut from a tree. They also had to identify 10 trees.
The forestry activities tend to be the toughest test in the environthon, Hendricksen said.
"There aren't a lot of people who go out and look at the trees," he said. "Many people only see urban trees that tend to be intense shade trees or flowering trees. This program gives the students a chance to see more kinds of trees and to do something that is not popularly pursued."
The rain didn't help, said Samantha Dixon, a senior at North Harford High School.
"For the most part, the environthon is a lot of fun," said Dixon, 17, of Jarrettsville, as she wiped water off of a small prism and held it up towards a nearby tree. "But the rain makes it harder. When I look up at the trees, the rain gets in my eyes and on the equipment. And that definitely is not fun."
At another station, students were engaged in activities in a creek. During the fall and early spring, in preparation for the competition, students wore hip boots and waded into the water where they caught bugs with nets and identified them, said Joanne Bowen, a biologist who ran this segment of the competition.
During the competition, they performed similar tasks, she said.
The soil station was divided into three parts. The tasks included evaluating soil for texture, color and topsoil thickness; interpreting the best use of the soil; and answering questions based on a soil survey, said Jim Brewer, a soil scientist for the USDA for the past 31 years.
Soil was included in the program because of its importance to the environment, Brewer said.
"Soil ranks right up there with air and water," Brewer said. "Soil is one of our natural resources. It's the thin skin of the earth. Kids learn things here that they can use when they become landowners."
Overall, the program helps make the students more environmentally informed, Davis said.
"This program gives students a ground up knowledge that they would never have exposure to," Davis said. "They get into the woods, the stream and the soil pit and they learn, and they have fun."