Pali High Once Again Competes at the National Envirothon

By Laurel Busby
Staff Writer 

For the past five years, Palisades Charter High School has been the state champion of Envirothon, an environmental science competition that requires a college-level mastery of the subject. Pali has finished as high as third (2016) in the national competition.

This year’s team of all seniors, who also came in ninth in the North American competition against 53 other schools, included Sarah Walton-Burrell (now headed to UC Davis), Candace Yee (UC Berkeley), Juliette Lerner (UCLA), Renata Robins (Yale after a gap year) and Caroline Bamberger (Stanford).

For Bamberger, who was also part of last year’s state championship team, the Envirothon experience provided both new experiences and a new outlook on the environment.

“Last year, I was fairly surprised to find out that I really love soils, a very strange thing to love, and this year that love only grew stronger,” said Bamberger, who grew up in Westwood.

The competition’s opportunity to interact with diverse students and experts across the country was also invaluable to her.

“I’ve been able to make connections with people I never would have met otherwise, like a fisher from Maryland and a rodeo roper from Arkansas,” Bamberger said.“ Beyond that, competing at an international level in a subject you’re passionate about can be kind of mind-blowing sometimes. The stress and excitement of competing mix together to make some memorable moments that I can’t imagine happening in any other situation.”

PaliHi’s Juliette Lerner comes face to face with a “rescued” owl held by a Maryland Department of Natural Resources employee.

Envirothon, which is led by environmental science teacher Steve Engelmann, has been consistent, triumphing at state eight out of 12 years since he started the program.

In addition, he often brings multiple teams to the state competition with several finding success. For example, Pali’s three teams finished first, second and third this year.

But even for teams he knows are not going to be competitive yet, the chance to be at the state championship is illuminating.

“It’s not about coming in first; I want to give these kids this experience—the studying, the exposure to new careers,” said Engelmann, whose daughter, Sasha, was on the first Pali team. “It’s a unique experience.”

(Sasha recently earned a Ph.D., focusing on the intersection of art and science at Oxford University in England and now teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London.)

Much of the program’s success stems from the chance to compete early, Engelmann said. For example, on this year’s state championship team, Walton-Burrell from View Park began attending Envirothon practices as a ninth grader mainly because she was interested in animals and found the wildlife portion appealing.

“Preparing for the competition enabled me to fall in love with environmental science,” Walton-Burrell said. “I’d always planned to become a veterinarian, but through Envirothon, I realized that my future career wouldn’t involve dogs and cats, but rather coyotes and mountain lions.”

This year’s North American competition was at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland and as in previous years included four categories (wildlife, aquatics, soils and forestry) plus a special topic, which this year was agricultural water and soil conservation. For the Pali students, this meant visiting farms in Maryland, but also in Ventura to prepare. For many, it was their first time on a farm, Engelmann said.

The team arrived five days early to the competition for a crash course in Maryland’s differing trees, soils and environment, because the national Envirothon always focuses most on the environment of its host state. For example, this year, the students were se- questered from their teachers and taken to a local family farm with pigs, cows, chickens, a stream and an apple orchard to analyze ways to improve its soil and water conservation.

In the process, they considered matters such as how to keep the farm profitable while also reducing erosion and preventing pollution, such as manure washing into the stream.

“It’s always interesting to watch the kids grapple with the big picture,” including a broad spectrum of issues ranging from the rights of indigenous people to outdoor event planning, Engelmann said.“ They’re trying to make everyone happy, but based on science. Sometimes you can’t do that. ”For the past five years, Palisades Charter High School has been the state champion of Envirothon, an environmental science competition that requires a college-level mastery of the subject.

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