The spring-green grass at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma was crawling with kids on two recent sunny days — students from area schools intent on getting close to nature and taking their classroom learning to the source itself.
The students participated in the 29th annual Nature Bowl, with the competition in Coloma finding teams striving for scores that will take them to the finals in May at California State University, Sacramento competing with teams from eight other counties.
Although only a few of the El Dorado County teams will advance to the finals, that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of nearly 100 kids who swarmed the park March 14 and 18, and the wide grins of the tired kids during the mid-afternoon awards ceremony was ample evidence that they all came out winners.
And why not, after a day of participating in fun nature investigations and putting on “enviromercials,” just two of the myriad contests that narrowed the competition down to the teams that will advance to the finals.
Competing with other north state teams in May from this area will be students from Latrobe, Lake Forest and California Montessori schools.
Weeks of prep
During the daylong competitions in Coloma, which began about 8 a.m. each day, the students were taken through drills and exercises that culminated some 10 weeks of preparation in environmental education, some in the classroom, but the majority during extracurricular exercises and studying after regular school hours.
In simple terms, these kids each earned the right to participate in the much-anticipated annual Nature Bowl.
“It’s almost all after-school and I’m just so thankful that so many parents volunteer to help during the days of competition,” said Claire Fernandez, a parent volunteer whose son Nic was representing Miller’s Hill School in Latrobe.
Fernandez watched as her son, in his fourth Nature Bowl, presented an enviromercial to a panel of judges seated at a picnic table at the beautiful state park on Tuesday, the final of the two days of semi-final trials.
Selling a concept
Nic’s presentation was wrapping up as he told the volunteer judges, many of them with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, about the importance of the public choosing vehicles that are environment-friendly.
“These are the two best cars for where we live — the Prius and the Volt,” said Nic, using a pointer to draw attention to photos on a display.
One of the judges asked how Nic’s team reached some of its findings and he said surveys were sent to the local community with responses e-mailed back, and along with other research the team’s conclusions were cemented.
“We have copies of the survey, if the judges would like one,” said the confident young man.
“Nic, that was a really unique and excellent job,” said another judge, prompting a smattering of applause from those watching the presentation. “Thank you to all the schools participating, you all did a really great job.”
That’s one of the nice things about the Nature Bowl, explained Taylor Cavin, with the American River Conservancy, one of the event sponsors.
“The kids can’t lose points in competing,” Cavin explained. “They can only gain them. The whole process of participation benefits all the kids. I appreciate how the Nature Bowl builds the students’ confidence and challenges them to not only puzzle over questions but ask questions of their own.”
Cavin, who helped staff a table where competition results were compiled and manned the microphone to organize the energetic kids, added that in helping with the Nature Bowl, he was “especially impressed with the range of topics addressed by the students’ enviromercials.
“Student-chosen topics included water conservation, erosion control, declining bee populations, proper disposal of batteries, alternative power vehicles and the return of the wolf to California,” he said.
In the beginning
Begun almost three decades ago, the Nature Bowl was the inspiration of Bruce Forman, who has been with the state DFW for 25 years. Before coming to Fish and Wildlife, Forman worked for the Sacramento Science Center, where the fledgling program he started there evolved into the Nature Bowl with his move to the DFW (formerly Department of Fish and Game).
“I began the program so that kids will learn they may enjoy nature while at the same time protecting it,” said Forman, Interpretive Services supervisor (naturalist) with the DFW.
Forman said he was gratified to see “lots of alumni here today as judges” and that many of the Nature Bowl participants from years past have gone on to environmental careers.
“But more importantly they have literacy in preserving nature, proper waste disposal, even roadway science and conservation concepts regarding wildlife, plants, habitat, water, energy, conservation … the choices we all make.”
From classroom to field
Nic’s mom Fernandez said she enjoys seeing the students take what they learned in the classroom out into the field.
One of Nic’s fellow classmates, Jacob Silvey, agreed, saying one of his favorite parts of the Nature Bowl involves the nature investigation, where kids identify from books what they are seeing in the wild.
Jacob’s pal Jake Peroutka expanded on that theme: “You ID items in nature, then in some cases you also pinpoint items that are not natural to the habitat,” he said, explaining one of the fun, interesting competitions that made the day seem to fly by, unlike sometimes inside school walls.
Not all the outdoors lessons are grasped the first time as Fernandez demonstrated when she mildly chastised a group of three boys intent on using a water fountain to try to spray each other at the park.
Fernandez asked, “Do you know we have a drought?”
She then sent them back to their teacher-coaches when her words failed to halt the hijinks.
“It’s a lot of fun for the kids but we want them to learn, too,” she said.
And learn they do, as Mark Barsotti, a fourth-grader at Camino School, showed.
“This is my second year (at Nature Bowl) and this time I did an enviromercial about feeding bears,” said Mark. “My poster said, ‘A fed bear is a dead bear,’ because if you feed them, the bears get used to people and come around so that they become a problem. Then Fish and Wildlife is called in and they’ll have to kill them.” Mark’s expression made it clear he couldn’t bear such an ending.
In another, perhaps unexpected, lesson, Nature Bowl founder Forman was speaking with the Mountain Democrat when five boys came up to the man they admire to tell Forman they had found a lizard.
Sure enough, an unhappy and really restless lizard was perched on one boy’s shoulder as the others pushed to get closer and touch it. After a few short seconds the reptile shot off the boy’s shoulder, plopped to the ground and made a lizard-line to a flower bed, where it disappeared.
Before the boys could launch a pursuit, Forman grasped the opportunity and said, “Boys! Don’t you remember what we learned about having lots of oils on our skins that wouldn’t do that lizard any good?” The boys backed off, lesson learned … or it might have been because the lizard was long gone.
Forman smiled and made his way to the nearby sprawling lawn area where the day’s accomplishments were going to be rewarded.
The kids gathered in an eager bunch, cheering each Nature Bowl sponsor as the names were recited by Taylor Cavin — but the loudest cheer came when Bruce Forman was introduced.
“I just want to tell you how awesome you guys were today,” said Forman, preparing to announce the winners. “It’s great to see all your knowledge about environmental practices. Kids can and do make a difference with environmental conservation.
“This is not about going to the finals,” Forman said. “I hope you all keep going on from here. Don’t let it stop; let’s make the world a better place. You are the future leaders of our planet — you guys rock.”
Each student received a green cloth bag, provided by sponsor Sacramento Municipal Utility District, filled with goodies like ink pens stamped with “Spare the air” on the side. Prizes were donated by several sponsors, with a chief contributor being the El Dorado Community Foundation. Marshall Gold Discovery park officials also were thanked for the venue.
Not all teams at this year’s Nature Bowl competition in Coloma were from schools, with some being members of Boy Scout troops and some homeschooled. Teams are not required to represent a school; they can even be formed of friends and neighbors who fit into the age and grade divisions (third/fourth and fifth/sixth).
For more information go to NatureBowl.com or arconservancy.org/education.