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Envirothon: Local middle, high school students compete in five outdoor categories of skill

Rebecca Barnabi
Seventh-grade students from Stewart Middle School compete in the 2024 Envirothon at Grand Caverns on Wednesday morning. Photo by Rebecca J. Barnabi.

Competition was the name of the game Wednesday and Thursday at Grand Caverns in Grottoes while high school and middle school students competed in the annual Envirothon.

High school teams from the county competed on Wednesday and middle school students stepped up on Thursday.

Two team of five students each competed from three local schools, including Augusta County’s Stuarts Draft Middle School.

Teams from Staunton‘s Shelburne Middle School and Augusta County‘s Stewart Middle School competed for the first time at Envirothon.

The teams were scored at five stations: Aquatics, Wildlife, Forestry, Soils and current environmental issue, which this year was renewable energy for a sustainable future.

“I’m happy to see some new schools. We’re always thankful because they have such busy schedules,” said Rich Wood, Headwaters Soil & Water Conservation District’s Education & Outreach Coordinator.

The middle school-level competition serves as a feeder for the high school-level competition, Wood said. For example, Stewart Middle students who get interested in Envirothon will go on to attend Fort Defiance High School and continue to compete.

“So my goal is to get Staunton High School [students interested] and then the other [Staunton] schools,” Wood said.

He also hopes to pull in students from Augusta County’s two new middle schools.

Wood has been involved with Envirothon for 30 years, having started when he worked in Pennsylvania before coming to the Valley.

“It’s all about getting that right teacher who grabs the attention [of the students],” he said.

Months before Envirothon, Agriculture and science teachers prep middle and high school students. Seventy-two from the Valley participated at Grand Caverns this week.

“They’re really prepared. I think we’re going to have a tight race,” Wood said of the middle school teams on Thursday.

His focus was on Shelburne because students in Staunton live in a city and have less opportunity to experience the outdoors than county students who live in rural areas.

“The most successful is if we can get ag-ed to work together,” Wood said of the competition.

Eric Heberling taught and coached at Fort Defiance High School for 18 years. He began coaching for Envirothon when a teacher at Stewart Middle School.

“As an educator and soil conservation technician, it is awesome to see young people care about being outside,” Heberling said of this year’s competition, which he participated in for the first time as a Headwaters soil conservation technician.

He said it is important to find the children at the middle school level who care about the pillars of Envirothon. They will need passion to properly prepare for competition.

“It’s very refreshing as a teacher,” he said of seeing children who want to make Earth a better place.

Heberling has a couple of former Fort Defiance High students now focusing on environmental science at VTech and UVA. They also participated in Envirothon when they were his students.

“This is definitely a contributor,” Heberling said of Envirothon. For the students who live in subdivisions, he said he does not know what other access they have to the outdoors other than competing in Envirothon.

Heberling coached students who went to state from Fort Defiance High in 2023, 2022 and 2021. Last year, his team was first in Virginia for the wildlife station.

“Now my job is doing Envirothon, but with adults,” Heberling said of working with farmers and landowners in Virginia every day.

On Thursday morning before competition began, Wood encouraged the middle school students to talk with the volunteers at each station about their professions in the station’s subject.

“It’s important you see where you could go if you go in that direction,” Wood said.

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca Barnabi

Rebecca J. Barnabi is the national editor of Augusta Free Press. A graduate of the University of Mary Washington, she began her journalism career at The Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star. In 2013, she was awarded first place for feature writing in the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Awards Program, and was honored by the Virginia School Boards Association’s 2019 Media Honor Roll Program for her coverage of Waynesboro Schools. Her background in newspapers includes writing about features, local government, education and the arts.