Heffalumps, Syzygy, and Eight: Envirothon 2010

by Ashley Yuen '13 and Charles Yang '13

On April 20, 2010, Montgomery Blair High School Envirothon teams Syzygy, Heffalumps, and Eight took the top three places in the Montgomery County Envirothon competition. A total of twenty-five teams across the county competed in the first round of the Envirothon competition in Derwood, Maryland. Seniors Jennifer Wang, Jason Albanese, Yifan Li, Diana Jing, Peter Gu, and Carlos Garcia (the team’s alternate), members of team Syzygy, placed first this year. Team Syzygy won first place in the Montgomery County Envirothon in 2009 as well. Peter Gu expressed his feelings towards winning: “It was pretty great. I wanted to have a chance to do better on the state competition than we did last year.”

Envirothon is an annual competition that allows high school students to compete and demonstrate their knowledge of environmental science through five different topics: Wildlife, Forestry, Soils, Aquatics, and Current Issue/Fifth Topic. The Current Issue changes every year, and the current issue this year was “Protection of Groundwater Through Urban, Agricultural and Environmental Planning”. "[With] current issue...[I] get to learn something new each year," says senior Cindy Sui, who has participated in Envirothon for the past three years as part of team Heffalumps. The general strategy that Envirothon teams use is to have each team member become an expert on one topic. In Team Syzygy, Jing studies Wildlife, Albanese studies Forestry, Wang studies Soils, Gu studies Aquatics, and Li studies Current Issue. The alternate “typically studies a bit of each topic. Sometimes the team will consider what points they need the most and put the alternate in that category to minimize the damage of an absent member,” according to Li. Every year, the County Envirothon takes place in April, the State Envirothon takes place in June, and the International Envirothon takes place in late July to early August. Team Syzygy placed first in Montgomery County, meaning that they advanced to the Maryland State Envirothon, to compete against the other first place teams from other counties in Maryland. Since the Blair Magnet Program does not yet offer classes that teach Environmental science, Envirothon acts as a great opportunity for Blair Magnet students to learn about it. "I don't take environmental science and it's interesting to learn about all the topics I don't learn about in school,” says senior Cindy Sui. According to Mr. Pham, the Magnet chemistry teacher at Blair, Magnet students are “capable of studying”. Envirothon requires students to study outside of school in order to prepare for the competition. Sui represents the Magnet attitude towards Envirothon: "It's really satisfying to self-study and do well.” However, Envirothon is not like other competitions that Magnet students often take part in, such as the Science Bowl or the American Computer Science League (ACSL). It allows students to get a hands-on education with the environment and nature. During an Envirothon competition, it is no surprise to see students digging soil or putting their hands into a cold river. "It's a very nice opportunity to get an outdoors education...we don't get enough of environmental biology [in school]", comments Diana Jing.

Blair’s Envirothon teams are sponsored by Mr. Pham. He says that he chose to sponsor Envirothon “because nobody else does it and we don’t teach [environmental science] in the Magnet.” Mr. Pham has been sponsoring Envirothon for a whopping seventeen years. “I’ve been teaching [at Blair] for 18 years. I think we started in the second year,” Mr. Pham recalls. In previous years, Blair was also very successful in Envirothon, having placed in the Maryland Envirothon and in the International Envirothon a few times. When Envirothon first began, it was not a very well known competition in Montgomery County. According to Mr. Pham, “At the beginning [when the competition began], Poolesville was the only [high school] participating.” It eventually extended out to other Montgomery County high schools, such as Montgomery Blair and Wootton High School.

Winning the Envirothon competition requires the entire team to prepare and rigorously train outside of school. “We had a few private training sessions this year. Getting all that practice really helped,” says Jennifer Wang. Even the new freshmen teams had to prepare for their first competition by attending the training session that took place in March. "It was such a great learning experience. It really opened my eyes to the problems in the environment," says Angela Wu, a freshman in Team FTW. Some freshmen were even a little anxious. Lidya Mesgna, a freshman who is also a member of Team FTW, expressed her thoughts before her first competition: “I’m a little nervous because I’ve never done it before, but I think it will be fun.”

With the members of Team Syzygy graduating this year after winning the County Envirothon two years in a row, there will be many opportunities for underclassmen to compete and do well in the 2011 Envirothon and beyond.