Envirothon Competition Centers on NC Agriculture

Envirothon students evaluate soil samples

International Envirothon Finals at NC State

The 2019 North American National Conservation Foundation (NCF)-Envirothon Competition ended as a North Carolina nail-biter last week.  53 high school teams from the USA, US territories, Canada, and China converged on NC State’s campus to square off their environmental science knowledge.  Over 600 students and advisors descended on campus for a North Carolina-style event. These 53 Envirothon teams represented the best in class from their territories having excelled through local and regional competitions and were now focused on making their hometowns proud.

Envirothon Team from New Brunswick Canada
Team from New Brunswick Canada

From Local to International Competition

NCF-Envirothon is a team-based high school program geared to cultivate student knowledge and skills in natural resources.  Established in 1978, Envirothon is an after-school club championed by local Soil & Water Districts. The five-member student teams assemble at the local level to study and train throughout the year in preparation for spring competition.  Winning teams from local events progress to state or regional competitions and hopefully on to the North American finals.  

The location of the international competition varies each year and determines the presiding theme.  This year’s venue at NC State bore an “Agriculture and the Environment” theme. NC State Extension’s Liz Driscoll coordinated the university’s involvement.  “NC State was proud to host this competition. We have so many partnerships between faculty, agencies, and industry that supported the Envirothon’s teaching, test-writing, and grading.  At least 100 faculty, staff, grad students, and alumni worked this event across multiple campus locations.”

NCSU faculty students trained Envirothon teams
Local agencies and NC State Faculty, staff, and students teamed up to train Envirothon participants

A Growth Environment

The 2019 competition week kicked off Sunday evening with opening ceremonies in the NC State Talley Student Union.  The ceremonies included an Olympic-esque flag procession highlighting each represented state and territory. Later, students attended a career expo where they visited future employers, university recruiters, and industry professionals to assess the marketplace demand for natural resource specialists.  

NCF Envirothon Opening Ceremony
Opening ceremony flag procession

Environmental Specialists

Students specialized in disciplines for their team
Participants practiced their skills on training day


The bulk of the week provided a multiday gauntlet of training, testing, and group presentation challenges.  Business started Monday with a single day of intensive training workshops in Envirothon’s five disciplines: Wildlife, Soils, Forestry, Aquatics, and the annual wildcard “Current Issues”.  Student team members used a divide-and-conquer approach to the accelerated study programs, acting as specialists in two to three chosen disciplines. These delegates were tasked to absorb the high-level teachings and become the teen guru for their team during competition.

Benefiting from Experience

A cadre of experts combined efforts to train students including NC State faculty, Natural Resource Conservation Services, the NC Division of Forestry, and the NC Association of Soil & Water Districts.  In the Soils discipline, NRCS and NC State Crop & Soil Sciences faculty presented soil horizons, sampling methods, and identification. Students learned to take soil samples in the university research soil pits and to use technical equipment to describe and classify soils.  

Envirothon Students Learn about soil horizons
Students learn about NC soil horizons

In the Current Issues discipline, agroecology experts partnered with entomology and horticulture faculty as well as staff from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems to present an integrated approach to sustainable growing.  Students observed pollinator plantings for visiting insects, weighed cover crop mass, and enjoyed a tomato taste testing to describe different varieties’ attributes and benefits. Surprisingly, not all the students jumped at the chance to load up on veggies.   

Envirothon teams sampled NC State-grown tomatoes
Students were offered several tomato varieties to taste test

Put To The Test

After Monday’s training download, on Tuesday students were ushered to a top-secret location to put their knowledge and skills to the test in timed, written, and hands-on tests.  Independent evaluators oversaw each venue to ensure a neutral playing field. It was a tough day – both mentally and physically in the NC August heat. “Beware the temperature,” staff warned.  “Do not get dehydrated. Humidity is your enemy.”

Envirothon students are tested on soil identification
Students evaluate soil samples on testing day

North Carolina’s Home Team

North Carolina was represented by a Davidson County homeschool group affectionately named “The Bees Knees”.  Their coach Lisa Loflin has worked with Envirothon teams for 15 years. “Most of our students have been studying environmental science and natural resources in some aspect for 4-7 years.  Each year they build on the knowledge,” Loflin said. This year’s NC team included two freshmen, one junior, and one graduating senior. “They poured their hearts and souls into studying this summer.  They sacrificed so many opportunities to prepare for this event to represent their county, state, and everyone who has helped them along the way,” Loflin said. 

Envirothon teams visit NC Ft Macon State Park
Teams visit NCs Ft Macon State Park

Real-World Challenges

After a Wednesday break to the NC coast for sightseeing and a Smithfield Foods sponsored barbecue, students were back to task Thursday.  Teams absorbed a three-hour seminar series on NC agriculture to prepare them for the final group challenge. This year’s real-world challenge was titled “Cecil Edwards’ Farm”, a fictional farm with future legacy and production concerns.   

Student teams were sequestered without advisors for six hours to collaborate and create a solution-based conservation plan.  They were allowed only their notes and memory – no internet access. The following day their presentations saw daylight in front of a panel of judges including NC State faculty, conservation agencies, and industry professionals.  Presentations were scored for economic feasibility, consideration of stakeholders and resources, and plan completeness. The top three teams repeated their presentations before the entire congregation in a live-stream format to vie for the title of North American NCF-Envirothon Champions.  

Envirothon teams collaborated on test day
Students worked together to solve real-world challenges

Between student presentations, NC State CALS Asst Dean John Dole underscored the real-world nature of this year’s work to the group.  “The challenge you were given this week is classic Eastern North Carolina – aging farmers find themselves with no immediate heirs and declining crop production.  Couple those issues with environmental disasters like the recent hurricanes in NC and the results can be devastating for both the farm and community,” Dole told students. “At the same time, we face the global challenges of feeding a growing population and preserving precious water resources.  Your work can impact the world.”    

Loflin’s NC team was one of three to get a callback.  “This competition is not for the faint of heart. Everyone has worked hard to get here and our students knew they couldn’t count on anything except each other,” Loflin said. “I couldn’t do anything to help them –  only congratulate them and tell them ‘Go get it!’ It was a lot of pressure for everyone.”

2019 Envirothon Winners Announced

The winning teams were announced at a Friday awards ceremony.  The 2019 top three teams were Virginia, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, with Virginia taking home the top prize.  The top eight winning teams split a total of $35,000 in scholarship money.  

Vrginia team wins 2019 Envirothon
Virginia team takes first place

“The Envirothon students have committed countless hours engaged in discovery and understanding of our natural resources.  They are poised to be the generation that will find viable solutions to keep agriculture moving far into the future,” Liz Driscoll noted.

Lisa Loflin’s NC team agreed.  “Participation in the Envirothon has definitely impacted the career paths of the students and has helped them become advocates of environmental stewardship,” Loflin said.  From her team, the graduating senior will attend UNC Charlotte in the fall to study biology. The rising senior plans to attend NC State in Crop & Soil Sciences in the fall of 2020.  “They are all interested in pursuing some type of career related to the environment,” Loflin added.   

NC Envirothon team wins second place
NC Team takes second place

Where to Find an Envirothon Team

After a brief summer break, teams will reconvene in fall to start anew.  Next year’s North American NCF-Envirothon Competition will be held at the University of Nebraska. 

Know a high school student interested in environmental science?  Environmental teams are formed in the fall. To locate one near you or establish your own, visit www.ncfenvirothon.org or your local Soil & Water District office.