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Pasco and Hernando science students identify wildlife, address water conservation at annual competition

Nature Coast Envirothon 2020 includes students from four counties, leads to scholarships for some.

BUSHNELL — Pasco High School senior Samantha Hinsz stood with her team under the moss-draped oaks of Dade Battlefield State Park and spoke rapid-fire from notes on index cards.

“American alligators. They’ll have 38 young, 24 out of the 38 survive, and then 10 out of those 24 reach juvenile. Eight out of those 10 get sub-adult and five out of those eight reach full adulthood. And then as the population matures, the population goes down because of cannibalism.’’

Pasco High School’s Green Party team, as the members dubbed themselves, was prepping for the Nature Coast Envirothon 2020, which tested the students’ knowledge of wildlife, soils, water, forestry and current topics.

Nearly 50 other five-member teams, from high schools in Pasco, Hernando, Sumter and Citrus counties, were bused to the state park on Feb. 19 to compete. The winning team from each county goes to the state Envirothon at the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee Wildlife Refuge center on Florida’s east coast April 25, and the winner of that goes to nationals, with big scholarships to offer. Each member of the winning county teams gets a $500 college scholarship, said Josh McCart, environmental resource teacher for Pasco County schools and coordinator of this year’s local Envirothon.

Students from Pasco, Hernando, Sumter and Citrus counties participated in the Nature Coast Envirothon, held on Feb. 19 at the Dade Battlefield Historic State Park. Pictured are students from Pasco High's Green Party team as they collaborate to answer questions about water resources. From left, Blake Perez, 17, Samantha Hinsz, 17, Rachel Petit, 18, Dan Walsh, 18, and Enrique Hernandez, 18. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

“This is more rigorous, more intense, it’s more challenging’’ for environmental science students, he said, “kind of like the Olympics for environment problems.’’

It’s the second year for Hinsz, 17, and teammates Enrique Hernandez, 18, and Dan Walsh, 18, who said he’s fairly calm. Unlike last year.

“We were all freaking out until we got there,’’ Walsh said. “Once we started collaborating, we started talking with each other and using logical answers, we started getting to agree (on) things and it became, not second nature, but it became easy for us to get through the tests in a quick manner.’’ They advanced to the state contest last year.

As they waited for this year’s contest to start, they played a game of hacky sack, a team-building and pressure-easing exercise, said their teacher, Don Charlick, who joined in.

“What I’ve noticed in the last 20 years is a change in mindset,’’ Charlick said. “Our students now are very conscious of the environment and the impact they have on the environment.’’

During the contest, teams gathered under pavilions at the varied stations and answered questions based on voluminous study materials given to them online by state agencies, including the Florida Forestry Service, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Department of Environmental Protection. The forestry material alone numbered some 60 pages.

At some stations, the kids were tested on items displayed on tables. In forestry, they were quizzed on a pine branch killed by fusiform rust disease. At other stations, they had to name waterborne insects or check the jawbone of a deer to determine its age.

A deer jawbone included at one of the stations at the Nature Coast Envirothon on Feb. 19. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

Team members talked quietly among themselves so their rivals wouldn’t overhear.

“It allows them to work on collaboration skills, and working together as a team to accomplish a goal, which I think is really an important part of this process,’’ Charlick said.

This Envirothon has been held annually since 1995. The concept originated in 1979 in Pennsylvania.

At Bushnell, team members studied all of the material, but each student focused on one category. Madison Mejia, 16, a junior at Nature Coast High School in Hernando County and a member of The Threshers team, sat with penned notes in front of her, which she studied on the ride up. Her topic was forestry.

“I will admit that I didn’t study as long as I probably should have," she said. "I studied kind of last minute. But I still feel pretty confident in what I did study.’’

Nature Coast High students check out a couple of lizards during the Nature Coast Environthon held on Feb. 19 at Dade Battlefield Historic State Park in Sumter County. Pictured (left to right) are Ashley Bowerfind, 14, Allison Bowefind, 16, Kylie McEntee, 16, and Tyrese Brown, 17. [ MICHELE MILLER | Times ]

Because The Threshers was the only team from Hernando County this year, it was guaranteed a place at the state contest.

The Green Party won for Pasco County. And perhaps because of the advance speedy tutoring from Samantha Hinsz, the Green Party also placed first in the wildlife category.

The whimsically-named Peanut Worms from the Academy of Environmental Science in Citrus and the Phantom Thieves from South Sumter High School also are headed to the state competition. The Peanut Worms won local contest and the scholarships.

The Envirothon is challenging to study for and to win, said event coordinator McCart. “You have to be somebody who is eager.’’

It’s full circle for McCart. He participated in the Envirothon in 1996 as a sophomore at Hudson High School.

“A lot of these kids have no clue as to what they want to do, so something might spark here,’’ he said. “It did for me when I came.”