EAST MANCHESTER TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WHTM) — This is Flynn Hessel’s first Envirothon.

It’s the first in-person Envirothon for everyone here, because you have to be in the third or fourth grade to compete at this youngest level of the environmental knowledge competition, and there hasn’t been an in-person York County Envirothon since 2019: It was canceled in 2020 because… well, 2020… and it was virtual in 2021.

Or in Flynn’s words: “It’s our first rodeo.”

A metaphor, of course: There are no horses here. There are, however, other creatures, including a scorpion named Kevin, brought (like other arachnids and insects) by Ryan “The Bug Man” Bridge.

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By the way, if you didn’t know arachnids aren’t insects and sure couldn’t describe the difference between the two, well, forget the section called “Are you smarter than an Envirothon 5th Grader?” in the York County Conservation District’s newsletter. You’re not even smarter than the third- and fourth-grade students competing today. (Neither was this reporter, who didn’t know the answer to that question, which the kids shouted when the bug man asked them.)

What grade is Flynn in?

“Fourth,” he said, adding: “I’m just very short.”

Envirothon is America’s largest environmental education competition. Forty-seven teams competed at John C. Rudy County Park.

“If you think of how schools have sports teams like baseball or soccer, schools now have Envirothon teams where students get on a team with a coach,” explained Michael McKelvey, the York County Conservation District’s education and communications coordinator.

One of those coaches — of kids who attend South Mountain Elementary School in the Northern York County School District — is David Foster. Foster and his wife Meg have been coaching Envirothon teams for decades, but he is also — well, is primarily — a Messiah University professor.

“We’ve been doing it long enough that I’ve had some of those third and fourth graders as college students, I’ve been able to really personally see the change it makes in lives,” David Foster said.

At this level, all kids win a gold, silver, or bronze “medal,” depending on how they perform in testing. For example, Flynn’s team and others in the “wildlife station” were answering questions about wildlife like birds and mammals. McKelvey said that prepares them for competitions at higher levels, such as in high school, where a one-point difference in a score can determine who advances to the state and national competitions.

The biggest victory of all?

“York County is a wonderful place, Central Pennsylvania,” Foster said. “We’ve got some wonderful natural diversity here. But if we want it to be here in the future, this” — third and fourth graders, that is, who know more than many adults — “is a key part of it.”