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North American Envirothon: Learning Across Borders

Posted: August 14, 2017

by Rhianne Whittaker and Christina Brinza

Envirothon is a competition that brings together teams from different regions to test their knowledge of environmental science. There are three levels of Envirothon: regional, provincial/state, and North American.

The North American level draws 54 teams from the United States, Canada, and China. Teams are made up of five students who work together to complete tests on five topics – soils, wildlife, forestry, aquatics, and a special topic chosen annually – and create a presentation responding to a problem scenario related to the special topic. This year’s special topic was sustainable agriculture and its dependence on water and soil.

Our team was fortunate enough to have won our regional competition and made it to the Ontario Provincial Championship. This competition was held in Lindsay, Ontario at beautiful Fleming College. We spent the first day learning about local ecosystems and farms in the region.

The tests we wrote the following day measured our knowledge of the five main topics and, on the last day, we prepared and presented our plan to redesign a local farm. During these fantastic four days, we met teams from across Ontario and interacted with like-minded students who are passionate about nature. We finished as the top Ontario team which meant advancing to the NCF-Envirothon in Maryland.


Moving from the provincial to the North American level was a big leap. Suddenly, there were twice as many people competing, the event lasted longer, and everyone had very different Envirothon experiences. Furthermore, the competition was in an entirely different region than we were used to. Naturally, this geographical difference posed quite the challenge.

We noticed some familiar aspects of the competition upon our arrival in Maryland. Training day still kept us learning outside for hours. We brought bananagrams so we could play rounds of  “Envirothon terms” like we had done at provincials. However, there were some major differences. For example, while we recognized tree families and started to feel comfortable with identification, training day revealed what felt like millions of different oak species. Measurements came as a relief.

Even though 4.5 feet does not equal 1.3m, diameter at breast height was essentially the same. We weren’t sure how to respond to the soils. The large, clear horizons were nicer than Ontario soils but it wasn’t familiar. And yet nothing was more scary than studying a completely different set of laws for agriculture and land use.

For the most part, we looked at these differences with an open mind. We came to Envirothon to learn and we definitely discovered more similarities than we anticipated. In sustainable agriculture, best management practices were often the same. The functions of riparian zones were identical in aquatics. We learned how to draw upon the similarities and differences between environments and their management in order to find the best solutions.

The challenges we faced at Envirothon left us with open minds and a new set of skills which will stay with us for life.

Rhianne and Christina are students at the University of Toronto Schools. They participated in the Ontario Envirothon and represented Ontario at the 2017 North American Envirothon in Maryland.