How the Georgia Envirothon is getting the next generation outside
When he’s not journeying across America on foot, or riding a motorcycle, or competing in beard competitions, Josh Seehorn makes teens fall in love with nature.
Actually, he does all those things at the same time. Seehorn, the Georgia-bred outdoor enthusiast whose expeditions on The American Discovery and Appalachian Trails in recent years have drawn the attention of media persons from across the country, is President of The Georgia Envirothon–his state’s branch of North America’s premier high school natural resources competition.
Wait. What’s Envirothon?
A high school competition to show who knows more about trees, soil, animals, and water. Held annually across North America, Envirothon challenges students to engage with the outdoors beyond their normal classroom education.
“We’re creating a different kind of world by living in urban environments,” the twenty-eight year-old Seehorn explains, “By living in and through technology–like Facebook and Twitter– it dictates how we dress, how we act, and the places we go. It’s not all bad, but it is shifting how humanity operates. When we strip all these cultural things away, natural resources are what we have.”
And what Envirothon has is a solution to an increasingly endangered involvement with nature among our nation’s youth.
Here’s how they do it in Georgia.
Every Spring, five-member teams from high schools all over the state show up to regional competitions. Teams are tested in five areas of natural resources: aquatics, soil, wildlife, forestry, and current issues. For each area, teams are given 45 minutes to complete a written and hands-on test. Everyone works together to squeeze out the knowledge they’ve gained in the months leading up to the competition. They answer questions about soil types and tree species and reptile genera. They scratch their heads and debate over what year the Suwannee Canal was dug in the Okefenokee Swamp. Then, a team member who specialized in one of the five subjects reviews the team’s work before turning it in.
80% of the written test section covers the history and present practices of managing a particular area of natural resources. The last 20% is hands-on. For instance, at the forestry station, students may have to walk into the woods, identify ten trees, and estimate board feet of a marked tree with a clinometer.
The winners go on to a State competition. And the winner of that goes on to the National Conservation Foundation (NCF) Envirothon.
But here’s the kicker. At the state and NCF level competitions, there’s an added twist to the fifth station on current issues. Teams are given a real problem to solve and then spend three hours preparing an oral presentation which includes tri-folds, pamphlets, and powerpoints. Then, the team of high schoolers delivers their solution to a judges panel as if they were a professional consulting group coming before a city council.
“It’s tough stuff,” says Seehorn. “When [former Envirothon] students go to a program like UGA’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, they’re just learning things for a second time. It sticks.”
The preparation is astounding. Nobody knows this better than Seehorn, whose Envirothon team won State twice while he was in high school. “In college I was hired two summers by the U.S. Forest Service to work with a wildlife technician. When I was involved with Envirothon, I studied wildlife. So the U.S. Forest Service got a kid who’s already taking initiative. They didn’t have to show me what a white pine is, or what a cone flower is–I could identify those things myself.”
Another way that Envirothon prepares students for the future is by offering a foretaste of careers in natural resources.
“It gives them an idea of what they would be doing if they were in that profession,” says Seehorn, who knew exactly what he wanted to study when he landed at UGA’s Warnell School–Wildlife Biology and Forestry.
But even if a student doesn’t end up working in natural resources, the experience is invaluable. “I have a friend who went through Envirothon who’s now an optometrist,” says Seehorn. “If you asked her about [tree] harvest methods or soil types, she’d would either know about it or know how to learn about it quickly. She knows about the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act; those things are still in her head even as an optometrist. Or if she was a politician or something else.”
Given the range of political hot-button topics concerning natural resources that don’t seem to be going away (cough–global warming), educating the next generation of politicians, business owners, and voters about natural resources in a legitimate, semi-vocational manner just might be an idea worth supporting.
How do I jump on board?
Just ask Seehorn, the President who’s really amping things up for natural resources. “We’re looking for individuals, businesses, and politicians to be involved, whether that’s through volunteering at our competitions or partnering with us financially.”
Despite rapidly growing numbers and 37 teams already signed up for this year’s competition, Seehorn is moving full-steam ahead. “I’m hoping to double our enrollment in the next year. For that to happen, we need to connect with high school advisors–the principals and teachers and counselors. If we don’t have a committed advisor, we won’t have any students. We need a passionate advisor that will pay the registration fee, get the students on the bus, and bring the team of students.”
Our future is in the hands of teachers.
Seehorn is positive about this. His dad–a long-time high school science teacher–started the Georgia Envirothon in 1995.
But being the son of the Georgia Envirothon founder doesn’t guarantee participation in Envirothon.
“I was dragged into it,” Seehorn says as his smile widens beneath an enormous, well-shaped beard, “My dad likes to tell the story–I wasn’t doing Envirothon my freshman year [of high school]. I was doing sports and other stuff. His team won the regional and state competitions, and then one of the students was selected for Governor’s Honors program during the same time as the North American Envirothon competition. My dad came to me and said, ‘Son, I need you to learn the wildlife materials. We need a person to go to the big competition. Will you do it?’ I did. And from that point on, I got into it–I signed up and became the captain of my teams.”
Humble beginnings for Lewis & Clark’s protege. Nowadays, Seehorn spends his time paying his dad’s invitation forward by voluntarily leading the nonprofit that trained him to love nature.
“I inherited my dad’s passion about this. He’s one of the most passionate people about Envirothon and promoting natural resources. My passion, too, is to give people a deeper understanding of natural resources.”
According to Seehorn, it took time develop a passion for the outdoors in his own life. Having no shortage of personal interests, he’s learned how to balance his time in the woods with other hobbies. “Students don’t have to forfeit playing music, building websites, or riding motorcycles”–all activities Seehorn enjoys himself–“you can still do those things and be interested in outdoor things.”
“If I said, ‘Let’s go black bear hunting,’ where would we go?” Seehorn asks, not surprised at the silence that follows. “I haven’t hunted bear. But I want to. And I know who to talk to in order to do it. That’s the point–the connectivity. We should at least be connected to people who know how to do outdoor things. Our culture is losing that.”
It’s precisely this type of connection with nature that the Georgia Envirothon is promoting to high schoolers. Since 1995, they’ve partnered with outdoor supporters such as Canon USA, Plum Creek Timber, and, most recently, Timber Update, in order to get teens juiced about nature.
But their biggest supporter is Seehorn, whose unique combination of environmental fervour and value for educating the next generation makes him perfect for his job. And no matter how you describe him–Thoreau’s ambitious twin, a Lorax in a band, or John Muir with a Harley–you can’t help but want to join him. Or rather, take a hike with him.
Editor, Timber Update
For more information about the Georgia Envirothon, visit these online resources: