Eric Rebellato, 17, was in trouble heading into 2016. He was several hundred thousand dollars in debt and proceeds from his cattle business totaled a meager $6,000.
Then the Monticello High School senior discovered policy incentives for sustainable farming.
"I wasn't thinking about sustainability at first, but I finally figured out that you can get money for making those choices," he said, minutes after asking a teenager two tables down for a portion of the $19 million subsidy she was overseeing.
Monticello science teacher Jeremy Dove looked on with a smile. Rebellato's aha moment about the intersection of commerce, policy and environmentalism was at the heart of Saturday's Bay Game at the University of Virginia.
Founded in 2009 by an interdisciplinary team of UVa professors, the game is an interactive simulation of the impact that interrelated policy, development and individual actor decisions have on the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
Teams representing Chesapeake Bay tributaries compete for the best economic and environmental outcomes over a 20-year period marked by game-changing market and weather events.
An onslaught of hurricanes heading into 2016 Saturday plunged the bay's health to 33 percent. Runoff from the storms sent nitrogen levels soaring to three times the target amount and the room buzzed as players grappled with the best response.
"It's really hard," said Cole Dickerson, 16, a junior at Monticello High School who played the part of a waterman.
"I've been losing a lot of money. The [crab] prices are really low so we're trying to lower the catch limit to drive up demand," he said. "You really realize how hard all of this is in real life."
The crabs survived this game. That hasn't always been the case, said David Feldon, an associate professor at UVa's Curry School of Education.
Feldon has helped lead many game sessions and said the best results are achieved when groups communicate and collaborate.
Thousands of college students and stakeholders across the state and country have played the game, but Saturday's event brought high school teams together for the first time. Roughly 50 students from Albemarle, Louisa, Chesterfield and Culpeper counties, the Hidden Pond Nature Center in Fairfax and Loudoun Academy made the trip.
"We hope that [students] take what they've learned with them," Feldon said. "Teachers get a lot of mileage out of the experience."
Connie Bolte, a teacher at James River High School in Chesterfield, said her first experience with the Bay Game last May was the most valuable day of her teaching career.
"There's no way you can stand in front of a class and explain how all of these things relate and interact and have it hit home with [students] the way that this does," she said.
Louisa County High School teacher Kim Jancaitis Martinak agreed.
"I thought this would be a practical way to show [students] how decisions matter," she said. "We talk about sustainable land use, and at the end of the day people need to make a living. They can see that here."