MATES Envirothon Team Headed to Nationals, Where It’s Not All Fun and Networking

By J.D. Watson | Jun 19, 2019
Courtesy of: Dave Werner MATES Envirothon team. from left: Dave Werner, Rich Belcher, Steven Holmberg, Erin Foreman, Anya Shehady, Brady Nichols, Jillian Peslak, Adam Sprague

Stafford Township — So imagine that you are a high school student, academically gifted, at the county’s highly competitive math and science high school, with a curriculum based around environmental science. You are among the best and brightest, challenging yourself and your classmates. And you’re at a prestigious academic competition for other high-minded, over-achieving students, vying for honors at the highest level. And you find yourself neck-deep in a soil pit. And it’s raining.

Ah, the privileged life of an academic.

“They were soaking wet last year,” said Dave Werner with a wry laugh.

Werner, along with Adam Sprague, teaches and advises the two Envirothon teams at the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences (MATES) in Stafford Township.

The Envirothon Competition is a dynamic, hands-on environmental education program for high school students. The New Jersey competition, held recently at the Great Times Day Camp in Waterford Works, had teams from 27 high schools from across the state. MATES team #1 placed first overall and earned first-place trophies in aquatics, wildlife and team presentation (three of the six competition categories).

Each team member from Team #1 – senior Erin Foreman, Lacey Township; senior Anya Shehady, Waretown; junior Steven Holmberg, Lacey Township; junior Brady Nichols, Manahawkin; and sophomore Jillian Peslak, Manchester – received a $1,000 scholarship and an invitation to the National Conservation Foundation’s National Envirothon. This year’s competition is to be held in Raleigh, N.C., later this summer.

“Going to the nationals is pretty intense,” Werner said. He should know; he and Sprague have led an estimated eight teams from MATES to the national competition over the past 15 years, including the last six years in a row.

Sprague explained, “Our students have finished first or second (in the state level) in each of the past 10 years.”

The competition, at both the state and national level, tests teams on their knowledge in natural resource related topics such as soils, forestry, aquatics, wildlife ecology and current environmental issues. Each team must also research and create a 10-minute presentation providing viable solutions to a real-world environmental concern. This year’s topic was “Agriculture and the Environment: Knowledge & Technology to Feed the World.” Each team’s final ranking is based on the total points earned throughout the competition.

Werner explained, “The week before the competition, the students are given a scenario and they have to solve a problem and prepare a presentation for the judges. It’s all about finding solutions to real-life environmental problems. It will be the same idea at the nationals.”

Between the written sections and hands-on segments, the competition lasts all day, according to Werner.

The MATES teams train each week after school, throughout the school year. Indeed, including the second team in practices and competitions is part of their continued success, Werner said. “The second team is like a junior varsity squad,” he explained; but having JV compete in the same competitions as the varsity equals invaluable experience. Team #2 –  consisting of sophomores Logan Bukowski, Brick; Caitlin Sia, Toms River; Madison Surette, Toms River; Mackenzie Fries, Jackson; and Maya Quinn, Barnegat – placed 10th overall with third-place finishes in wildlife and team presentation.

The competition can lead to unforeseen benefits for the students, according to both men. “It’s been fun to see students go through the program, go into the environmental field in college and beyond; some are now working in the field, pursuing their careers,” Werner said.

Sprague agreed. “The students make connections in this field with other students at the competition and they relate those connections to opportunities down the road.”

Werner competed at the state level as a student in 1997.

The competition is not all fun and networking, though. Back to last year’s soil pit.

“They put the students into a soil pit where they have to dig through and identify the various soil layers. They figure out soil composition by handling it – how much soil, clay. It’s very hands-on,” Werner explained. The rain was an extra, unexpected challenge.

“The nationals are really hard. The level of material they have to work on is difficult,” he continued.

Students from across the U.S. and Canada as well as students from China are expected at the national competition, scheduled to be held July 28 through Aug. 2. The students stay on the campus of UNC Raleigh.

“They will compete for a few days, visit some local sites. It’s a great experience,” Sprague said. “A lot of students make friends from these with really interesting people from across the country and abroad.”

— J.D. Watson

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