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Could you identify the largest venomous snake native to North America if you found one in your back yard? Do you know what liming material would be best for soil that’s deficient in magnesium? And if you were lost in a forest, would you know what plants were edible? And which ones might kill you?

For students in the Canon Envirothon, North America’s largest high school environmental education competition in which more than 500,000 teenagers are involved in a yearlong learning process combining in-class curricula with hands-on field experiences, these questions are at the center of their training as future conservationists, consumers, and citizens.

Kentucky students in grades 9-12 are improving their ecological IQ through this unique environmental problem-solving competition that tests their knowledge in five areas of natural resource management and conservation—soils and land use, aquatic ecology, forestry, wildlife, and environmental special topics.

Every spring, Kentucky hosts two regional contests at local universities, nature areas, or state parks, with 30 to 50 Kentucky teams competing for one of the five top spots that will advance to the state level. Then the state competition is held each year at the Lake Cumberland 4-H Education Center near Jabez.

The winner of the state Envirothon then travels to the international Canon Envirothon, which pits teams from 45 states and seven Canadian provinces against one another as they compete for $125,000 in scholarships and Canon products. The Canon Envirothon is held each summer at a different location in the United States or Canada.

“The Kentucky Department of Education has the slogan No Child Left Behind, but we like to say ‘No Child Left Inside,'” jokes Steve Coleman, director of the Kentucky Division of Conservation and coordinator of the state Envirothon competition. Indeed, for the teachers, students, and coaches who participate in this one-of-a-kind conservation competition, the payoff is having fun while learning in a classroom as big as all outdoors.

Susan Neumann, who teaches biology, anatomy, and environmental science at Model Laboratory High School in Richmond, had always considered environmental responsibility and natural resource management at the core of her teaching. But now, after her fifth year as an Envirothon coach for the tiny eastern Kentucky school, she sees knowledge of conservation practices as the living, breathing answer for the future.

“This competition opens kids’ eyes to the world around them. It develops a love of the outdoors and a practical knowledge of eco-system health,” says Neumann, a self-described environmental generalist. “Everything is very applied with this competition.”

For the written test, teams are tested on their knowledge at “stations” or sites. For the field test in forestry, students might be asked to use tree bark or leaves to identify a tree or determine how many cords of wood could be harvested from a tract of land. At the wildlife station, students might be quizzed on how to maintain successful food plots for wildlife. For the land use and soils site, students may have to wade into a soil pit to identify soil types by texture.

After the field portion of the state competition, teams must prepare a 10-minute oral presentation in which all five members participate. Teams are secluded from their coaches at this time and are provided with materials to develop a presentation on an assigned environmental topic. Each year the environmental issue is different, ranging from biodiversity to recreational impact on the environment. Students are judged not only on their oral presentation skills, such as visual aids, eye contact, and originality, but on their ability to understand the political, social, and cultural aspects of the problem and to show an understanding of the interrelationship between natural resources and management strategies.

“Five years ago, I was approached by a parent who had been to an Envirothon competition in North Carolina and asked me if I would be willing to start something like that at Model,” says Neumann. “We didn’t have anything close to an agricultural program here, but I had a few ninth-graders in the Environmental Club, and we decided to compete. That first year, I had no idea what I was doing.”

Despite her misgivings that year, the Model team placed ninth out of 33 teams in the state Envirothon competition. And since then, Model has represented Kentucky twice in the international Canon Envirothon.

The international competition had humble beginnings also. In the late ’70s, the Pennsylvania Soil and Water Conservation Districts proposed an environmental Olympics for Pennsylvania students in grades 9-12 who were interested in careers in natural resource conservation. Other states soon became involved and the Enviro-Olympics grew in popularity until, in 1988, the program became known as Envirothon. In 1999, camera giant Canon became the title sponsor, and the program currently operates under the name Canon Envirothon.

Kentucky got on board in 1999. “That first year, we just had one state competition,” says Coleman. “No one in Kentucky really knew what we were doing.”

But the news spread quickly. A 26-year veteran of the classroom, Southwestern High School science teacher Frances Carter has been involved in the competition since 1999.

“I was at a national biology teacher conference in Houston, and I happened to wander past the Canon Envirothon booth. I thought this would be a great thing for students,” says Carter. That first year, Carter took one team from Southwestern High School in Pulaski County to the state competition. She now coaches nine teams with 45 kids involved.

As Carter sees it, this program typifies the best of place-based education, creating an intersection of classroom, environment, and community. “Teachers can call their local divisions of Fish and Wildlife or their Department of Forestry to help the students with their training. This competition connects people to the resources in their community.”

Jennifer Turner, the environmental educator for the Kentucky Division of Forestry, is one such person who serves as a resource for many teams. In addition to helping teams throughout the year, Turner is also part of a team that designs the forestry portion of the state test.

“The greatest impact of the Envirothon competition is that it gets high school students—people just around the corner from voting—to think about environmental issues as a team. Can you imagine if we could get local, state, national, and global leaders to study for and compete in an Envirothon event? Think what they could accomplish after researching five separate topics and then working as a team to solve problems and answer questions.”

Coleman sees teamwork and problem-solving as one of the biggest plusses of the competition also.

“They have to compete just like a basketball team for that cumulative score,” says Coleman. “It teaches them problem-solving and environmental management, but being able to work as a team is invaluable.”

In Susan Neumann’s classroom on a cold winter afternoon in January, her team meets for practice to do exactly that—work together to solve problems and answer questions for the regional competition that will be held in April. During any given practice, the students might study the skins of wildlife—coyote, possum, beaver, muskrat—or look at the feathers, wings, and skulls of birds to become acquainted with the habits and lifestyle of Kentucky wildlife. Practices might also include listening to guest speakers, working one-on-one with foresters, soil scientists, and wildlife specialists, or going into the field for tree identification or soil sampling. Students on Richmond’s Model Lab team also read a variety of environmental books. Before competing in the Asheville, NC, Internationals, the team read E.O. Wilson’s The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, an eloquent argument for the preservation of biodiversity.

“While few of my students plan to pursue careers in agriculture or forestry, this training affects the way they see the world. It affects how they plan their own homes, manage their properties, and choose products as consumers,” says Neumann.

Neumann’s son, Blake, is the captain of Team A. He, along with team member Christa Nnoromele, has been to the Canon Envirothon international competition, and they provide the necessary leadership for the teams as they practice.

“The competition is only one part of the process. The environment is here for us to protect, and the Envirothon is about learning ways to preserve that,” says Blake.

In 2008, the Model Lab team traveled to Flagstaff, Arizona, to represent Kentucky and brought home an 11th-place honor. In 2009, the team competed in Asheville, North Carolina, and placed 14th, earning each member of the team a Canon camera and a laser printer.

Fayette County’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School represented Kentucky at the 2010 Canon Envirothon, August 1-6 at California State University in Fresno. Dunbar finished 17th at the international competition.

“The most rewarding thing for me is to see our teams leave Kentucky and represent us well by working together to place in the top percentile each year,” says Coleman. KL


To learn more about Envirothon, go online to these Web sites for international and local information:

Canon Envirothon

Kentucky Envirothon


What is your environmental IQ? Test yourself with the following questions. (All test questions taken from the 2009 Canon Envirothon in the areas of Wildlife, Aquatics, and Soils. Answers at the bottom.)

1. Which of the following terms is used for animals that are most active during dawn and dusk?
a) nocturnal
b) diurnal
c) crepuscular
d) circadian

2. Soil density is defined as the mass of dry soils per volume. Common units are grams per cubic centimeter or pounds per cubic foot. Other things being equal, which soil material should reflect the greatest density?
a) sand
b) clay
c) silt
d) humus
e) loam

3. Where is the best place to spot trout in mountain streams?
a) riffles
b) quiet pools
c) splash pools
d) rapid flowing, boulder-filled areas

4. In reality, freshwater in nature is not pure because water exposed to air will rapidly dissolve which gas, forming a weak acid?
a) oxygen
b) nitrogen
c) carbon dioxide
d) calcium carbonate

5. The specific role that an organism plays in its ecosystem is known as its?
a) niche
b) biotic factor
c) habitat role
d) pyramid position

ANSWERS: 1. (c) 2. (a) 3. (c) 4. (c) 5. (a)


You can squeeze more enjoyment out of a nature hike if you can understand and identify the trees on the trail. Take our “Which tree is this?” quiz. And to increase your awareness of political, social, and cultural issues related to the environment, try reading some of the books on Susan Neumann’s suggested reading list. Go to environment IQ.

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