Forests Ontario

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To the Victor Go the Soils

Posted: July 25, 2019

The University of Toronto Schools (UTS) is well on its way to building a legacy, having now won the Ontario Envirothon for the sixth year in a row. It’s not surprising that many people are beginning to wonder what the school’s secret to success is. This is exactly how I found myself amongst nearly 650 hyped-up teenagers in a muggy gymnasium – a situation I had hoped to never find myself in again after graduating high school.

Don’t get me wrong – I was excited to join Maple Leaves Forever and a few of my Forests Ontario coworkers to take part in the Ontario Envirothon Cheque Presentation at UTS’ last day of school assembly, but I was even more excited for a chance to chat with the winning team following the presentation of their $2,500 award.

Ontario Envirothon Champions from UTS. L-R Michelle, Instructor Elizabeth Straszynski, Rhianne, Amanda, Christina, Cate, Cole

UTS Envirothon team members Rhianne Whittaker, Michelle Han, Cole Franklin, Cate Balasubramanian, Amanda Chen, and Christine Shao eagerly led me up to their second-floor study space – a typical high school biology classroom, complete with cupboards bursting with various apparatuses and student-made demonstrations crowding the walls. According to the team, this is where they spend the hours following the school day each Tuesday and Thursday.

I dove quickly into my interview questions, excited to uncover the secret of UTS’ Envirothon successes. However, I was a bit disappointed to learn that it wasn’t really a secret at all.

According to Envirothon coach and science teacher Elizabeth Straszynski, UTS is a merit-based school. “Hard work is the cornerstone to the UTS philosophy, and this extends to all subjects and programs – including Envirothon,” explained Straszynski. The team attributes its victory every year to this industrious attitude, as well as an early start to studying and unmatched staff supervision.

Straszynski’s passion for environmental science is clearly contagious – all but one Envirothon student had her as a teacher at one point, and three students cite her as one of their primary reasons for participating in the competition.  In addition to encouraging students to take part in Envirothon, Straszynski is also the mastermind between UTS’ comprehensive selection process for team members.

Prospective team members begin attending after school meetings in September, and are tested in January on the five upcoming Envirothon topics (soils, aquatics, wildlife, forestry, and one special topic). The students who receive the top marks in each topic move forward; several teams are built this way. These teams then compete against each other during regional competitions until one is left standing – the provincial UTS Envirothon team. This process yields a team that is not only competent and well-rounded, but also incredibly diverse, pulling students from across grades and interest areas.

True to their hardworking-nature, Straszynski and the team didn’t skip a beat after being crowned the Ontario Envirothon champions; they’d immediately begun studying for the North American Envirothon in North Carolina at the end of this month. In fact, Straszynski plans to remain busy even after the final competition; when asked how she plans on spending her summer, she replied, “I’ve already begun thinking about how to train next year’s team.” She’s also interested in finding ways to incorporate environmental science into UTS science curriculum.

So, there you have it: one stringent selection process mixed with equal parts hard work and staff support is the recipe to Envirothon success!

Back: Amanda, Christina, Rhianne, Michelle, Cate, Cole, Deb Pella Keen(MLF), Diana Castro(FO). Front: Elizabeth Straszynski, Allison Hands(FO)