As New Jersey makes statewide action plans to deal with rising temperatures, the environment has emerged as a top concern for the Garden State. How fitting that this year, on May 20, the NJ Envirothon returns to in-person competition for the first time since the pandemic.
Started in 1994 by the New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts and held annually ever since, the NJ Envirothon pits teams of high school students against each other in a friendly competition of environmental knowledge and hands-on problem-solving.
First, teams of five students register with their adult advisor. They study extensive materials from the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) and other professional organizations dedicated to national resources. Students also have the opportunity to join a training session run by an environmental professional.
A week before the competition, the teams are given an environmental problem and asked to come up with a solution. Then comes the day of competition.
First, the teams test their knowledge in five subjects: aquatics, forestry, soils, wildlife and a current environmental issue. Then, the teams must each describe its environmental solution in a presentation before a panel of judges.
Sound intense? Maybe, but, according to Doug Jay, a science teacher at Livingston High School and the advisor to last year’s winning team, that’s part of the fun.
“Kids love competition,” he said. “The chance to achieve the thrill of victory works as well in the Envirothon as it does on the sports field.”
But more than that, the experience of studying natural resources can offer students a lasting appreciation for nature.
“Even if we bombed the competition, maybe you’ll know more about wildlife than you ever knew,” Jay said. “Or maybe you’ll know more about plants or soils or streams and rivers than you ever knew before.”
“And I feel as an educator, that’s my goal,” he continued. “There’s nothing more I would want to know than…to have a kid walk away and go down the road with a better knowledge of nature and how the earth works, and then maybe not screw it up so much, like predecessors beforehand. That’s why I got into education in the first place.”
The event offers rich opportunities for students who care about the environment to learn from people who have dedicated their lives to it.
Lily Mehl, NJ Envirothon’s coordinator since 2020, is also the executive director of the New Jersey Association of Conservation Districts. She explains that the event is “a whole conservation partnership,” with sponsorship and volunteers drawn from the National Resources Conservation Service, AmeriCorps’ NJ Watershed Ambassadors Program, the NJ Department of Agriculture, the NJDEP and the Rutgers Cooperative Extension, among others.
“People are so inspirational who work in this field,” Mehl said. “It’s great for the kids to meet them.”
Many of the volunteers from partner agencies come back to help with the Envirothon again and again.
One such volunteer is Sheila Hall, a resource conservationist at the Morris County Soil Conservation District. Hall writes the environmental problem that students must address in their presentations. She’s done the job for the past 25 years.
Since Livingston High School began competing in 2016, Jay estimates that the NJ Envirothon has attracted between 20 and 30 teams every year. For the past two years, though, fewer teams have competed in the virtual version of the event.
That gave Livingston’s 2022 team a boost: less competition.
When a team wins the NJ Envirothon, each member receives a $1,000 scholarship. The team also receives a stipend to cover travel expenses to the National Conservation Foundation’s Envirothon, where they compete against other states’ winning teams for thousands in scholarships.
Last July, Jay’s Livingston High School team traveled to Ohio to compete in the national event. The trip began on an ominous note. On the morning of their flight, one of the students came down with a fever of over 100 F. The team had to compete with only four students. Despite missing a team member, the New Jersey team placed 13th out of 50 total teams.
Jay looks forward to competing again this year. Yet it’s not the competitive aspect that matters most to him.
“What does the world actually need? It’s kids who have this deep knowledge of natural systems and how to manage things sustainably,” he said.
“Almost ignore the fact that it’s a competition and look at the fact that this body of knowledge is being accessed by all these young people who care and they’re learning…how to make natural resource decision-making and how to collaborate as a team and how to work together. All of these great skill sets that they’re all developing by doing this competition. Why wouldn’t you want your kids to do that?”
This year, the NJ Environthon will occur on Saturday, May 20, at YMCA Camp Zehnder in Wall. At press time, Mehl noted that 15 teams had signed up for this year’s competition. Teams can still register through the Contact Us page on the NJ Envirothon website.
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.