WILSON LAKE — Some contestants were veterans, and others were newcomers, but the 62 high school students here Wednesday were ready for a good competition.
Sylvan Park below the dam at the Russell County reservoir was the site of a regional Eco Meet testing knowledge of Kansas flora and fauna. Another regional meet is today at Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays.
The Eco Meet began in 1991 at Milford Nature Center near Junction City. Wilson State Park and Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita were added in 1999 to make it a statewide competition, said Mike Rader, wildlife education coordinator with Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism.
Approximately 600 students now compete in 10 regional meets. The state meet will be Nov. 3 at Camp Aldrich and the Kansas Wetlands Center near Great Bend.
Students in eighth grade through high school compete in teams of three or four to show their knowledge through four contests — exams on habitats and groups of animals, a scavenger hunt and an interpretive session.
One of the objects of the competition is for students to learn about where they live, Rader said.
“We want students to have a greater awareness of what’s in their own state,” he said.
The students also learn skills that can carry them through their careers and lives, he said. In the interpretive contest, students perform a five-minute skit in which each portrays a different animal and tells about that animal’s habitat, food, appearance and reproductive cycle.
“We may not care if they know how many pups a coyote has when they’re 30 years old, but they will probably remember they had to get together with a group of kids their own age and perform that in front of a group of judges,” Rader said. “The public speaking aspect is what’s important to us about that event.”
Volunteer Lori Beck, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife employee from Wichita, called the interpretive contest “education with flair.” She was one of the four judges for the interpretations.
“The goal is to educate us and entertain us,” she said.
“Oh my goodness, yes, they get very creative. We’ve already seen a presidential debate,” she said at the mid-day break.
Other skits included a “Cottontails Anonymous” meeting for predators, and four not-actually dead animals — a talkative bullfrog, a white-tailed deer, a ring-neck pheasant who lapses into Chinese and a frustrated opossum — on a hunter’s cleaning table trying to figure out where they were.
The exams this year focus on the tallgrass prairie for habitat and invertebrates for animals. The topics rotate every two years and also include shortgrass prairie, woodlands and wetlands/aquatic for habitat, and herpetology, birds and mammals for the animals.
In the scavenger hunt, the teams have 30 minutes to scour a designated area for as many items as they can find and correctly identify to score points.
The teams from nearby Wilson Junior/Senior High School worked hard to prepare for this year’s meet, and it paid off with the school sweeping the event.
The students are part of teacher Melanie Falcon’s science club that has given four of their Sundays since the start of school to study for the meet. They have traveled to Sternberg and the wetlands center as part of their practice.
Falcon said her eighth-grade team members focus on the scavenger hunt and interpretive skit, while the high-schoolers concentrate on the testing.
“With my high school team, once they learn it, they pretty well know it. We’ll go out one afternoon and do a pasture walk and identify everything we can find,” she said.
Falcon waited anxiously at the scavenger hunt as her teams presented their samples to a judge. The volunteer judges made sure the students correctly identified such grasses, trees and shrubs as Russian thistle, foxtail, aromatic sumac, big bluestem, cottonwood and goldenrod, taking time to explain when samples had been misidentified.
For a time, it looked like Falcon’s freshman students might beat the senior team with a score of 91, but the seniors scored a perfect 100. Falcon gave high-fives to all her students for the good show.
The team of seniors Anna Criswell, Aaron Dlabal, Trey Fink and Kyle Goldwater took first place at the regional. Each will receive a $100 scholarship. The four hope to take first in the state competition, where they placed third last year.
Two other Wilson High teams placed second and third and will receive $75 and $50 scholarships, respectively.
Dlabl and fellow Wilson students Alex Moody and Ethan Dlabl swept the individual awards in the habitat and animal testing contests, too.
Osborne High School competed in the Eco Meet for the first time in several years, said Osborne High School science teacher Terri Nicholson, who is in her first year in the district.
“All of these students are brand new (at Eco Meet), but they’re already talking about doing it next year, so that’s a good thing,” she said.