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Envirothon area teens compete to show off environmental & ecological prowess by Sue Henninger

Most adults and teens have full plates these days so what compels them to dedicate their limited free time to an environmental competition? For Karl Biedlingmaier, a Chemistry and Environmental Science teacher at Churchville-Chili Senior High School who advises the school's Students for the Environment Club, it's being able to offer his students a different type of experience. "With technology the way it is, kids spend their lives inside; they don't get the chance to be outside and do thing away from the computer or to apply the science they're learning in the real world," he says.

Education Coordinator for the Monroe County Soil and Water Conservation District, Karen Ervay, also has a ready answer, "Young adults today have a whole different level of awareness than people in past decades have. They've been brought up with a different mindset; they're constantly thinking about things like recycling and composting and they really care about the world they live in."

Ervay, has helped organize the county level of Envirothon, a hands-on, outdoor environmental competition for years. Though Envirothon got off to a slow start in Rochester, with only four teams from the Churchville-Chili school district competing the first year, the event's popularity has grown, and there's currently a core group of about eight to ten schools that now participate every year.

Eco Teens

What types of teens are drawn to a competition like the Envirothon? According to Ervay the students are usually very aware of the importance of the decisions they'll be making about the future of their world. A hands-on, environmentally-focused event like Envirothon not only reinforces their proactive attitudes about issues such as conservation, sustainability, and land stewardship, but also encourages them to become action-oriented adults. She acknowledges that not every high school student will end up pursuing an environmental career, but feels they still have the ability to carry these positive values into the world and share them with others. For those students who do want to make a career out of protecting the environment, the Envirothon is a fun way to fuel this desire and increase their knowledge base.

Biedlingmaier and Churchville-Chili Senior High School's Students for the Environment Club send several teams to the county Envirothon competition each year. Biedlingmaier explains that the students on his teams do ninety percent of the work, often starting to prepare for the event in the fall. "To be successful, you really need to treat it as a year round event," he explains, adding that he likes working with the teens because they're so self-motivated. Some of the teams' dedication and high energy levels may be attributed to the fact that his one requirement is that the five team members be friends. "They need to have that rapport to be successful," he explains. "It doesn't matter if the five smartest kids in the school are on a team, if they don't care about each other they won't do as well."

Biedlingmaier adds that many of the students on Churchville-Chili's teams aren't teens who constantly win academic or sporting awards. "They may not have lots of trophies on the shelf," he says. "This may be the first event they've ever won so it means a lot to them." He recalls the first time a Churchville-Chili team made it to the State level. "The kids were crazy-excited," he recalls. "But they had no idea what they were doing and they came back home saying 'We could do so much better.'"

The teens persisted so it was really memorable when they finally reached their goal. "I still remember the look on their faces; they were thrilled," Biedlingmaier recalls. Since then, Biedlingmaier's students have made it to the New York State Envirothon for the last eight years in a row. They've also placed third at the state level three times. "The kids want to maintain that tradition of being successful," he asserts. "When we get back to school they're already anticipating next year's event."

Ervay is also cognizant of what the teens are capable of as she's chaperoned a few Rochester-area teams to the State Envirothon. "It takes a special kind of kid to compete," she says. "It's an amazing type of competition. I wish they had it when I was in high school!"

Community Support

Local community groups have also been staunch supporters of Envirothon over the years. Rochester Institute of Technology has "been a strong partner and one we're enormously appreciative of," Ervay notes. Not only does RIT help organizers put workshops together, the college also provides an "instructor pool" that hosts workshops for the Rochester high school students.

Finger Lakes Castle, a local company that produces environmentally safe products for the automobile industry, has also been an advocate for Envirothon from the beginning. Ervay explains that the company's founder places a high value on educating and reaching out to local youth and sees Envirothon as an ideal means of accomplishing this goal.

Getting Involved

Becoming part of the Envirothon is easy. Ervay explains that there are five teens per team and that each school district can send up to three teams. Teams need an adult advisor, usually a high school teacher, who will help them study the five areas of the competition: wildlife, soils and land use, forestry, aquatic ecology, and a current issue which changes every year. Students and their advisors utilize a variety of means to learn more about the topics including reading articles, having guest speakers with a specific expertise meet with them, and taking field trips.

The County Envirothon is usually held in early May, rain or shine. Each team travels from station to station where they're tested, both in writing and through interactive activities, on what they've learned. Teams must be able to follow instructions and come up with the answer or solution to the questions posed. Each cycle runs about twenty-five minutes and the final scores are tallied to determine which lucky team will go to the State competition. Though only one group can advance, Ervay always awards the top five teams a plaque for their efforts.

Biedlingmaier adds that without Ervay's efforts none of the Monroe County teams would have had such good county and state level performances. "Karen's tireless energy is what drives us and keeps the event together," he asserts.

Once the New York State champion team has been selected, winning teens head for the Canon Envirothon competition, the national level of the Envirothon where one team from each state competes against students from other parts of the United States and Canada. Greece-Athena has gone to Canon twice says Ervay, noting "They're the strongest team I've seen in awhile." However, she quickly adds that she's proud of every single Monroe County team that's participated in Envirothon over the years because the students always have fun. "We don't hold the event for the one team that goes to State, we hold it for everyone," she emphasizes.

Sue Henninger is a contributing writer to Rochester Area & Genesee Valley Parent Magazine. Contact her at