The Spruce Mountain Lynx Envirothon team works on one of five one-hour tests taken Monday, July 26, during the virtually held 2021 National Conservation Foundation Envirothon. Pictured from left are Dan Wilson, Kasey Burns, Drew Delaney, Leah Burgess, and Owen Schwab. Submitted photo

JAY — The Spruce Mountain High School Envirothon team was able to compete virtually in the international competition this year after all events were canceled last year because of COVID-19.

The 2021 National Conservation Foundation Envirothon was hosted by the National Conservation Foundation (NCF) and the Nebraska Natural Resource Districts. Nebraska was set to host the competition last year.

The competition was held July 25 to 28 using online platforms. Forty-one winning teams from across the United States plus some Canadian and Chinese provinces took part, advisor Rob Taylor said. Participation was down about 25% as some states and provinces did not hold competitions this year, he noted.

The Spruce Mountain Lynx team was one of three SMHS teams that competed in the state meet, also held virtually in May. The Lynx team scored the most points of the 14 teams competing, making it eligible for the international event.

“We are so glad we were able to compete in the Maine Envirothon back in May and in the NCF Envirothon this past week,” Taylor said. “We were so fortunate that the Maine Association of Conservation Districts was able to create a virtual event so that students in Maine could have access to Envirothon this year. They put on a great virtual Maine event.

“The NCF also was able to create a quality experience for students internationally,” Taylor noted. “This was not easy to do at any level and these organizations really stepped up to support the Envirothon program.”

Envirothon tests students’ knowledge in aquatics, forestry, soils and wildlife. Teams are also expected to research a current issue, determine a way to address it and give an oral presentation on their solution. The Maine competition did not include a current issue this year.

Spruce Mountain Lynx finished 34th in the latest competition. The team placed 19th in the current issue, 20th in aquatics, 21st in wildlife, 26th in soils, 31st in oral presentation, and 40th in forestry.

The Spruce Mountain Lynx Envirothon team celebrates after completing five straight days of competition. Pictured from left are Dan Wilson, Owen Schwab, Advisor Rob Taylor, Kasey Burns, Leah Burgess, and Drew Delaney. Submitted photo

Spruce Mountain Lynx consists of senior captain Drew Delaney, sophomores Owen Schwab and Dan Wilson, and freshmen Kasey Burns and Leah Burgess. Abraham Geissinger competed with the team at the Maine Envirothon, but was unable to compete in the NCF event due to a family trip.

Wilson was the team alternate at the Maine Envirothon and stepped up to fill in for Geissinger, who still attended most of the preparation events for the competition, along with members of the other Spruce Mountain Envirothon teams.

“When I first heard I had to learn all about Nebraska’s wildlife and environmental issues in two months, I thought it would be impossible,” Burgess said. “It was actually very enjoyable. Working with my teammates and Mr. Taylor and Mr. Baker to strengthen our ideas, demonstrate how teams work together, and have some fun was an experience to remember.”

“I learned not only about the sections of Envirothon, but teamwork and perseverance as well,” Burns noted. “My favorite part was the oral presentation because it pushed me outside of my comfort zone.”

“I didn’t learn as much as I thought I did, but I learned way more than I already knew,” Wilson said.

“Envirothon has a strange and rather unique way of being fun because of how hard it is,” Schwab said. “You don’t need to be successful to enjoy it because you do it for the challenge, not the chance of winning.”

Delaney summed it up when he said, “My favorite part was to be able to compete at the international level because it was an entirely different experience than a state level competition and requires a contribution of every team member.

“The hardest thing about the competition this year was to compete in a competition that is about the state of Nebraska without ever having been there,” he noted. “In a normal year the teams would have traveled to Nebraska and had a day of training in the state before the days of competition.”

For Burgess, “The hardest part about Envirothon this year as a freshman was knowing that COVID was taking little bits of the real Envirothon experience away from me.”

The hardest part for Wilson was that it was so difficult to get in contact with people and get questions answered. “I also want to mention that the technical difficulties we kept experiencing were also not a great part of the experience,” he added.

For Schwab, the hardest part was trying to learn everything.

“Not only were the things we studied individually difficult, but everyone on the team had a different schedule, making it hard for the whole team to get together,” he noted.

The thing that Delaney enjoyed the most about the competition was being able to work with his four great teammates. “They made being in a classroom, competing in the national competition through a computer enjoyable,” he stated.

“I enjoyed the bonds I had built with my team members as well as the time crunch we experienced the last week of the competition, it was the most fun and difficult experience all at once,” Burgess said. “I cannot wait to see us grow together as time goes on.”

“What I enjoyed the most is knowing that we all tried our very best, learned a lot, but most importantly, we had loads of fun doing it,” Wilson said.

Schwab agreed that the most enjoyable part was working with his teammates.

“This was a tremendous learning experience for students,” Taylor said. “They are so young to be competing at this level. Many teams are senior laden at the NCF event. Drew provided great leadership throughout the year to his younger teammates. His sophomore year his team took second place in Maine, losing by just a few points to an all senior team from Spruce Mountain.

“He was excited about the competition last year, but disappointed when it was canceled,” Taylor added. “I am so glad he got to compete this year.”

The team had a number of hurdles to overcome and made great progress as the NCF event went along, Taylor noted. First of all, there were numerous technological challenges to overcome with the event being virtual, he said.

SMHS Science teacher Sikwani Dana volunteered to proctor the students during the five one-hour tests Monday, July 26, on forestry, soils, aquatics, wildlife, and current issue, as the team needed a non-advisor proctor, Taylor noted, adding a testing platform called Inspera was used and the students were monitored by their computer as they were tested.

A glitch in the team’s computer appeared prior to the first test and technology support specialist Mark Bonneive quickly configured a second machine to get the team testing, Taylor continued. During presentations, the team wore wireless microphones using a sound system set up by music teacher Dan Labonte while English teacher Kym Bryant provided a wide angle camera, Taylor continued.

The students then had to take what they had learned about Maine’s natural environment and apply it to learning about Nebraska’s ecosystems. The team met with advisors Rob Taylor and Biology teacher Ken Baker every week since winning the Maine Envirothon to prepare for the competition, as well as studying on their own.

“Ken has been a great asset to our team,” Taylor said. “We are so lucky to have him on board working with the kids. Also, Maine did not hold a Current Issue presentation as part of the Maine Envirothon, as the logistics were a challenge, both for judging the event remotely and for teams preparing the presentations with all of the COVID restrictions in schools.

“It was the right decision for Maine to not do CI presentations this year, but it created an interesting situation for the kids at the NCF event,” Taylor said. “Only Drew had ever done a current issue presentation and that was a six-minute presentation his sophomore year in Maine. The NCF CI presentation needed to be 20 minutes long with a 10 minute question and answer period to follow. Most of the kids had done LEGO League in Middle School and had some public speaking experience from that program. They learned a great deal about public speaking.”

The students were also challenged with fixing the issue of nitrate contamination and unsustainable water use in the Ogallala aquifer, which is beneath nine Midwestern states and is the source of Nebraska’s water for irrigation and drinking water, Taylor said. The team’s solution included using new technology to manage nutrient monitoring and applications, preserving playa wetlands that help recharge the Ogallala aquifer, and implementing agroecology (agricultural combined with ecological) techniques to reduce the need for fertilizers and improve water infiltration, he added.

“I told the students a number of times during the week that a person could do a Ph.D dissertation on solving problems like those in the Ogallala,” Taylor said. “The kids were given the problem on July 16 and could work on it until presentations July 27. They could do research online to help solve the problem.

“Normally they would be given the problem and need to solve it in one day with just what they already know,” he noted. “Being able to do research actually made the problem more intense and it took a lot more time. The kids spent close to 20 hours as a team analyzing the scenario, developing their solutions, developing a presentation and slide show and rehearsing.”

“They (my teammates) will be the backbone of the Spruce Mountain Envirothon Team for the next few years,” Delaney noted.

Comments are not available on this story.