Laura O’ Leary was traveling in Alaska when her North Harford High School students won last year’s Harford County Envirothon competition, the first public school to win in a decade in an upset of perennial powerhouse Harford Christian School.
She was on hand Thursday afternoon, however, when the Hawks took their second straight championship in the 2018 Harford County Envirothon at the Broad Creek Memorial Scout Reservation in Whiteford.
“I hope I can breathe in a few minutes,” an emotional O’Leary said as she sat with members of North Harford’s A team.
Her son, Ryan, is on the A team, called Wheat Grass, and her daughter, Erin, is on the B team. The B team, called Sagebrush, took first place in its division, too.
Students from 11 Harford private and public high schools participated in the day-long competition Thursday. They moved throughout the Broad Creek grounds, putting into practice their training and education in the areas of forestry, wildlife, aquatics and soils, and performing a written test on their “fifth topic.” The fifth topic on an environmental or conservation issue changes each year. This year’s topic was managing Western range land and balancing the diverse view on how it should be used.
Patrick Jones, an engineering associate with the Harford County Soil Conservation District — the primary Envirothon sponsor — said about half the Earth is covered in range lands, from deserts to grasslands. It is the primary location for the world’s meat production; and most of the range land in the Western U.S. is public land.
“That means you, I and everybody else owns it,” Jones said, noting that means everyone has a voice in how it is used.
The students had worked with their faculty advisers ahead of the competition, but they were on their own Thursday.
“It was an excruciating day,” O’Leary said. “I could only see them from afar, and I was trying to send them my smartest environmental vibes.”
North Harford took first place out of 10 A teams with 537.5 points. Harford Christian, or Orchard Grass, took second with 478.5 points, and Fallston High School, or Fescue, won third with 441.5 points, according to the results.
Sagebrush, the North Harford B team, won first place out of five teams with 339.5 points, followed by Havre de Grace High School (Rye Grass) in second with 309.5 points and Patterson Mill High School (Juniper) in third with 276.5 points.
The A team will move on to the Maryland Envirothon, scheduled for June 14 and 15 at the Maryland 4-H Environmental Education and Camping Center in Garrett County. The 2018 national championships will be held at Idaho State University in Pocatello, Idaho, in late July, according to the Maryland Envirothon website.
“We have a lot of work to do, because we’re really hoping to go to Idaho,” O’Leary said.
She said North Harford’s second consecutive win is “especially nice” because four A team members will graduate this year, including her son.
Senior Aubrey Williams said of the team, “We spend a lot of time together, so I think we’re kind of sick of each other at this point, but we love each other. We’re like a big family.”
Ashlee Kothenbeutel and Evan Tridone, seniors at The John Carroll School in Bel Air, praised the collaborative nature of Envirothon.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re competing against other schools,” Kothenbeutel, a Churchville resident, said. “You’re with your team, and you’re helping each other take the test.”
“It’s very collaborative,” Tridone, of Fallston, added.
Juniors Diana Dai and Christina Zhang, international students from Beijing and Shanghai, China, respectively, said they enjoyed Envirothon, too.
“I’m definitely liking it a lot, I’m learning a lot,” Dai said.
The students, who plan to attend John Carroll for all four years and go to college in the U.S., live with host families in Abingdon and Bel Air, respectively.
“We can do experiments and just explore in the woods and everything, it’s fun,” Zhang said of Envirothon.
Zhang designed the logo that adorned Envirothon 2018 T-shirts worn by all participants. It incorporates all five aspects of the competition, including grazing cows to represent the range land fifth topic.
“I [put] all of the five parts of the competition together,” she said. “I personally like drawing, I’m good at art.”
Fallston High students Jack Geraghty, a freshman, and sophomore Emily Dannenfelser said they enjoy the collaboration of Envirothon and getting to learn things they have not experienced in the classroom.
“It’s kind of the community of people on our club, working together to get the information,” Dannenfelser, of Bel Air, said.
Fallston faculty adviser Karen Williams, who teaches A.P. environmental science, said students can see “the actual jobs that are available in the field of environmental science” through their work in the competition with professionals such as foresters, wildlife biologists and soil scientists.
Some are active in their fields and others are retired. They all work on a volunteer basis, according to Jones, of the Harford Soil Conservation District.
“I enjoy that they get to work with the people that are actually working in this field,” Williams said.
Julie Baker, the John Carroll adviser, teaches environmental science and chemistry and is the private school’s science department chair. She said students can learn, through Envirothon, information beyond what they get in science class, such as estimating how much of a tree can be sold for lumber, part of the forestry profession.
She said they also get to experience what many local youths do not, “just being outside and learning something about where they live here in Harford County.”
Tim Gerber is one of the volunteer instructors, specializing in soil science. He is an Earth Team volunteer with the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. He said working with Envirothon is part of his service with NRCS.
Gerber, an adjunct faculty member at Harford Community College, is retired from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. There, he worked on soil surveys for each county in Ohio.
He said finding out what type of soil is present is “the first step in planning anything,” such as a house, commercial building, road or septic system.
He said working in soils is not as glamorous as other environmental areas, but “you could say it’s the basis for the other aspects of the Envirothon, wildlife and forests and aquatics.”