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Envirothon: Educating Our Youth

As I walk up to a large storage shed near the shore of Lake Darling on a windy (North Dakota windy!) September morning, I expect to see teenage kids huddled together—in near silence—attempting with all their might to keep warm. Instead, I find a few dozen high school students from surrounding communities chatting with one another and enjoying some hot refreshments. It reminded me of the first day of school, when kids are filled with nervous excitement—this is a good thing.  But this was not the first day of school; it was the beginning of the 12th annual Mouse River Loop Envirothon.

Envirothons—think environmental Olympics—provide hands-on environmental and natural resource management education to high school students. The idea is to empower young people with the competencies and motivation vital to achieving and maintaining a natural balance between the quality of life and the quality of the environment. It is structured in a competitive format where teams of five members are exposed to a diverse set of environmental issues. The teams then work through these problem sets to demonstrate their mastery of environmental science and natural resource management.

This year’s envirothon teams were comprised of students from communities near the Upper Souris Refuge. Many of the students have participated in past event; that said, there were some green horns among the group.

I sat down with one such group—a team from Max, ND. After filling me in on their morning adventures, which included waking up “way too early” and getting lost along the way, they told me about their expectations for the event—a first for all five of them. The event’s theme was sustainable rangeland management, so the students expected to learn about rangeland issues. They admitted (quite bravely given the circumstances) that they do not have much of an interest in environmental issues, nor do they foresee a future in conservation management. However, they thought it was going to be a fun learning experience, and a way to participate in an “outdoor classroom” setting for one day.

With the help of volunteer guides, students were asked to navigate 19 sites throughout the refuge. Each team would then spend five minutes working through a question or set of questions. The problems centered on a diverse range of topics, from naming a plant’s common name or genus to identifying native wildlife.

Following the site visits (and braving the cold, I should add), students were treated to lunch and a stimulating presentation on rangeland management from Dr. Kevin Sedivec, Extension Rangeland Specialist at NDSU. Engaging high school students can be a tricky undertaking. Dr. Sedivec, however, was able to combine education with humor, all while presenting the information in way that was relatable to the students. (I’d say it was a winning combination.) Armed with this new knowledge of rangeland management, the teams were given time to develop their oral presentation.

The envirothon experience places a high premium on ensuring that participants be able to orally communicate natural resource issues in addressing environmental problems, particularly in situations where collaborative efforts are required to develop practical solutions.

Prior to making their oral presentation, I caught up with the team from Max, ND. Each one of them had rave reviews about the event (discounting the cold and windy conditions) and was glad they had participated. And although they still plan on pursuing careers outside of conservation, they did admit that their interest in the natural environment has increased as a result of the envirothon. I, for one, believe we can chalk this event up as another victory for conservation awareness.