WEEKI WACHEE — Squirrel frogs climbed up and down their cages' walls, seemingly oblivious to the teenage faces peering at them.
The high-schoolers' task: to identify the amphibians at the wildlife testing station during Wednesday's annual Nature Coast Envirothon at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
More than 300 students comprising 61 teams from four counties — Pasco, Hernando, Citrus and Sumter — gathered for the competition to answer questions about soils, forestry, aquatics, sustainable agriculture and wildlife. They were trying to win a $2,500 Tampa Bay Times-sponsored scholarship, to be divided among the winning team's five members.
The scholarship went to the "Dinosaur Eggs" team from Central High School in Hernando County. Senior team members Megan Roche, 18; Theresa Hancock, 17; Brett Waugh, 18, and captain Addison Hilyard, 18, were experienced Envirothon participants. Freshman John Walker, 15, was new to the competition.
"We've been doing it for a long time, and it's a goal we set our minds to," Hilyard said, speaking for his victorious team.
The Envirothon is coordinated through a volunteer steering committee, said Dawn Velsor, the lead environmentalist for Hernando County government, who has been involved with the event for several years.
Goodie bags for category winners and medallions for the top teams from each county are provided by sponsors, some of whom are steering committee members.
The purpose of the event is environmental education and the opportunity for scholarships.
"It gives the students hands-on applications to real-world problems," said event coordinator Josh McCart, high school environmental resource teacher for Pasco County.
Students prepare for the Envirothon by studying an online guide.
Julia Mariana, 17, a Weeki Wachee High School junior, explained how members of her team, "EcoWarriors," educated themselves.
"Every week we studied after school as a group," she said.
They also worked with another team from their school, "Terra Nova."
"We studied our study guides, did games and quizzed each other," said Terra Nova team member Johnnie Smith, an 18-year-old senior.
The general consensus was that the soils category was the most difficult, but not for the "For the Halibut" team from Mitchell High in Pasco County.
That team's members split the categories among themselves to study, and junior Michaela MacDougall, 16, studied soils. She said she found it easy.
"That's because that was mine," she said, "and I'm a genius."