The natural world is their classroom

If someone asked you to look at a turtle, could you identify it by simply looking at its shell? If an American beech tree were imperiled by some sort of ailment, could you tell by looking at its bark what the problem was?

Many of the high school students who competed recently in a Massachusetts "envirothon" could - and did. And that's not all. They knew how to take a sample of wetland mud (use an auger), measure the height of a tree (without climbing it), and field tricky questions from expert judges. Each team from 42 competing high schools also got marks for its presentation on an environmental issue - ranging from housing sprawl to sewage treatment.

Even as schools reshape their curricula to match the questions on standardized state tests, advocates of environmental education insist students have much to gain from "getting their hands dirty" in various aspects of environmental stewardship and cleanup.

Kids who study the environment are better equipped in math and science, asserts Abby Ruskey, president of the North American Association for Environmental Education. Whether a student tracks a mountain lion in the Cascades or plants a garden in Harlem, the hands-on, interdisciplinary nature of environmental education, Ms. Ruskey says, can help schools raise their performance levels.

"When you get a student out into their environment," she says, "in their community, taking water samples from a stream, there is a sense all of a sudden that the world ... has suddenly become that much bigger and important."

Ryan Glines was skeptical when he signed up for David Gorrill's coastal studies class at Barnstable High School on Cape Cod. "[But] going out and testing the water, seeing the pollution, I just kinda got interested and am really glad I did it."

Not all teams studied for the competition as part of a class. Some teams prepared during after-school study sessions, and others were members of their school's environmental club. To compete, though, all had to finish the year-long Envirothon training - a rigorous program that includes workshops by USDA soil scientists.

Some students, like Mike Brundige, even have environmental stewardship in mind after graduation. "I'm probably going to go into wildlife management, something around the lines of natural resources," says the junior at Norfolk County Agricultural High School in Walpole, Mass. "Maybe be a park ranger."

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