Jason Schechter is an expert on urban runoff, the toxic soup of pollutants that contaminates creeks, streams and oceans. Tyler LeBrun specializes in forestry. Margaret Hsieh is the authority on wildlife. Tara Shepersky is swimming in knowledge about aquatics.
And Sean Carroll is, as they say in these circles, "the dirt guy."
Together, these Adolfo Camarillo High School students are a powerhouse of environmental wisdom.
Their milieu: the Envirothon, a national academic competition that quizzes high schoolers on the ever-pressing issues facing planet Earth.
Right now, the Camarillo team--the only one in Ventura County--is the best in the state. And this summer, when the students head to Jackson, Miss., to represent California among teams from 45 states, they hope to be the best in the country.
"We're pumped," said Carroll, a junior. "Although Mississippi in July doesn't sound like much of a vacation."
A win in Mississippi would bring not only bragging rights but up to $3,000 for each student in college scholarship money, said Chad Pridgen, the team's coach and science teacher.
Schechter, a senior, hopes to use the prestigious title to bolster his application to Stanford--where he is still on a waiting list--and the money to help pay the steep tuition. It would be well worth the many nights and weekends he has spent researching runoff pollution, he said.
"We prepared so much," he said. "We knew as much as we possibly could."
The team's victory at the California Envirothon in Mountain Center last month followed six months of brain-busting that included field trips around the county, visits with environmental professionals, and many late-night and early morning study sessions, Pridgen said.
After a short break--so the high-achieving team members can take their Advanced Placement exams--the studying will resume in preparation for nationals at the end of July.
Although they've already covered much of the material, they'll have to learn "whatever is different between California and Mississippi--which is a lot," said Shepersky, a senior.
This will be the second time in Pridgen's three years as coach that he has taken a team to the national round. Last year's team--from which one member is returning this year--placed fifth, and a second Camarillo High team placed ninth in the state last month.
Most of the students who participate are enrolled in or have taken Pridgen's Advanced Placement environmental sciences class, which gives them a good base of knowledge, he said.
The students' trips will be funded through a combination of sources, including their parents, community groups and possibly the school district.
Envirothon competitions involve written questions and hands-on exercises in four areas: forestry, wildlife, aquatics and soils, said Kay Asher, a coordinator for the national contest. A fifth category, which changes every year to reflect hot environmental issues, requires students to develop a plan to solve a hypothetical problem. This year, the topic is urban runoff.
Preparation includes reading books, cruising Web sites, visiting facilities and talking with professionals in the field, the students said.
And despite the often grueling study process, the experience was fun, they insist.
"It's being tested on something you like to study," said LeBrun, a junior.
The California contest involved 26 schools and was sponsored by resource conservation districts throughout the state, including the Ventura County Resource Conservation District in Somis. El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills placed second, and Arlington High School in Riverside came in third.
Ventura County Supt. of Schools Chuck Weis said the contest is a perfect fit for Camarillo High's curriculum. He encouraged other schools with environmental science courses to get involved next year.
"Academic competitions are a valuable way to signal to students that academic learning is as important as athletics," Weis said. "Learning about the science of the environment is critical to all of us."