Maya Albanowski and Nora Gavaghan have a lot in common. Friends, science enthusiasts, teammates — all describe this dynamic duo.
They two young women were both freshmen when they first met at Seneca Valley High School. Gavaghan, an avid enthusiast of wildlife and aquatics, asked Albanowski about joining the biology team at school. Soon after, a walk through the doors of Dana Hadley’s biology classroom cemented this passion for science. Coincidence or not, their partnership has resulted in stellar results for Seneca Valley’s biology club.
Hadley, who has been teaching at the school for 17 years, introduced the club to Envirothon, an environmental knowledge competition held at both the county and state levels. Students are placed in teams of five to test their scientific knowledge of five categories: wildlife, soils, aquatics, forestry and a current issue that changes each year. Each student on a team specializes in a content area, but the team can work together throughout the various test stations.
“We really didn’t think we had a shot at the Envirothon in 2015,” Albanowski says. “We had a joke that we were running for second to last place, and then we ended up getting third place in the competition. We decided we really liked it, and it was something we were good at.”
While the test questions are administered on paper, Albanowski says the competition is a hands-on process, with the results judged by professionals. For example, in Albanowski's specialty of the forestry, she had to identify a tree the judges had marked, as well as other species. In the example of soil, sometimes the judges will give a sample and the team has to not only determine what type of soil it is, but also its different qualities.
“I’ve been interested in animals and the environment my whole life because my dad is an aquatic ecologist, and I just like being outside, so I just thought biology club is something I should do,” says Gavaghan, who specializes in aquatics and also serves as team captain. “I’m very much an animal person, so the two categories that mainly deal with those are wildlife and aquatics, and I like reptiles and amphibians and fish, so that’s what it falls under.”
Just coming off the third Envirothon competition of their high school careers, Albanowski, Gavaghan and the rest of the team continue to improve, and the dynamic duo is eying next year’s competition for senior year. This year, Seneca Valley competed at the state-qualifying Butler County Envirothon competition.
Seneca Valley’s results included a first-place finish at the county level, and the team finished 46th out of 64 teams at the state level. While the team was thrilled with the results, both Albanowski and Gavaghan say there is more to the competition than just showcasing knowledge of the environment. Along with the competition, guest speakers come in to discuss a variety of topics, including how improving the environment directly correlates with stronger health for both communities and individuals.
“I think everything is interconnected,” Gavaghan says. “We are part of the environment and it’s one in the same.”
It’s evident that the team has a strong camaraderie, not only when it comes to friendship and working as a team, but also in their passion for improving the environment and the health of communities across the nation.
“I think competitions like this are really important, especially now in these times,” Albanowski says. “We need to be aware of our environment and aware of how we affect our environment and how we can protect it. Seeing rooms full of hundreds of kids who already know so much about their environment and care so much about it was really inspiring to me and something that was touching.”
Now with state-level experience under their belts, Albanowski, Gavaghan and Hadley are eager for next year’s competition. And win or lose, Hadley knows the real results aren’t going to show up on any judge’s scorecard.
“There are so many wonderful things gained from this experience,” Hadley says. “The main idea is working together and respecting one another, help each other reach a common goal. In a school as large as Seneca Valley, I take pride in bringing together students who might not normally interact and become friends. There are people from farming backgrounds, hunters, environmentally concerned students, and those who just love the outdoors and science in general.”