By Laurel Busby
Palisades High’s Envirothon team triumphed against teams across the United States and Canada this summer, garnering the Spirit Award, first place in wildlife, second in oral presentation and third overall.
Envirothon, which tests the environmental-science knowledge of high school students, has some similarities to Academic Decathalon in that it’s an extensive test of knowledge. Yet it’s also quite different in that instead of taking individual tests, the teens work in five-member teams that conduct hands-on experiments outdoors to delve into the local flora, fauna and terrain where Envirothon is conducted.
They analyze soil, test local water, examine both trees and wildlife, and investigate a fifth category, which this year was invasive species.
“The kids did great,” said teacher Steve Engelmann, who has led the team for 11 years, including seven of those years winning the state title. “We got the Spirit Award for most enthusiastic and spirited. We were in the running anyway, but then two of the kids did a song and dance about the invasive Asian carp. That sealed it.”
To be competitive, Pali’s team flew to Ontario, Canada, five days early to get acquainted with the local plants and animals. However, Ontario’s team still had “a huge advantage” in the competition and took first place overall, while relatively nearby Pennsylvania took second. Last year’s compe- tition took place in Missouri, where again the local team won first place overall.
“The kids were very pleased” with their finish this year, Engelmann said, and each team member earned a $1,000 scholarship as a prize.
Pali’s team, which won first place in California to earn entrée to the North American competition, consisted of four graduating seniors—Noah Alcus and Greg Glad- kov (who will attend UC Berkeley), Yuko Nakano (Amherst College) and Makayla Michelini (Brown University), plus junior Caroline Bamberger.
The five joined Envirothon for varied reasons. Alcus’ older brother Zachary was a competitor, and so the team was a natural fit for Noah, who finds the field and science fascinating.
“I feel like knowing about the environment and just a little bit about science in general helps me know whether news items are just headlines or blatantly wrong information,”Alcus said.“Having this background in environmental science makes me a lot more understanding of how the world is changing and about how our society is 50 years behind problems that are occurring right now.”
Nakano checked out a number of PaliHi clubs before getting serious about Envirothon as a junior while a student in Engelmann’s AP Environmental Science class. That year, the team also won state and placed 15th nationwide.
Bamberger said, “I went into the program passively interested and ended up a member of the most spirited team of high school-level environmental scientists in North America (and China).” She also noted, “It has inspired me and kids from Montana to Manitoba to become actively involved in environmental science and explore new fields.”
Exposing students to the ways environmental science is pertinent to various careers is part of the goal of Envirothon. For example, during the program over the years, its trainings and its competitions, Pali students have explored hands-on activities with a local wildlife biologist in Topanga Creek. They also met people from the Environmental Protection Agency and companies like Lockheed Martin, where environmental design is vital to winning government contracts.
“Environmental science applies to so many different areas—environmental design, architecture, government, law, scientific stuff; it’s important to everyone,” said Nakano, who plans to become an attorney. “Even if you don’t have a career in it, it applies to you if you’re living and breathing.”
Engelmann, a 27-year veteran teacher whose daughter Sasha was part of the first Pali team to win at the state level 10 years ago, said that for the hundreds of kids who compete, “they already understand so much about sustainability and conservation. . . . They’ll probably go into a whole array of fields and take that knowledge with them.”
He noted that for some science classes, students wonder how they’ll use the information, but that never happens with environmental science. “Almost every day, somewhere someone is talking about it. I think they feel it’s relevant.”