There's nothing like being elbow deep in dirt, deadlines and a pile of festering kitchen scraps to motivate students to do extracurricular work that doesn't count for a grade. Throw in a competition for the prestigious Fairchild Challenge at Phipps Award, and students at Shaler Area High School will even perform songs praising cow dung to get the job done.
Long meetings, monthly deadlines and muck? Small potatoes. "We wanted to win!" said Caitlyn Braun, 17, of Reserve, a rising senior.
During the 2010-11 school year, 19 of the district's Gifted and Talented Education students competed with 12 schools in the region for the Fairchild Challenge award, hosted locally by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
The Fairchild Challenge, instituted by Fairchild Tropical & Botanical Gardens in Miami, Fla., asks students to investigate and respond creatively to environmental issues through a "menu" of choices.
In May, Shaler learned it had garnered first place in the overall competition, winning $1,000 for the school's environmental education program. Teams from North Allegheny Intermediate High School took second place and received $500 and North Allegheny Senior High School placed third, receiving $250.
Throughout the seven-month competition, schools could participate in eight challenge options, with each option gaining the school points toward the overall award, said Kate Borger, high school program coordinator at Phipps. Schools were informed of point standings throughout the year.
The options, designed to appeal to a broad range of students with varying interests and abilities, included green cuisine; backpack design or plant diversity design; "speak out"; nature poems; multimedia message; opinion papers; performing arts: alternative energy; and environmental action, a three-level option involving self, school and community.
"Shaler did every single option," said Ms. Borger. Not all schools did.
"That takes a huge effort and commitment from the students and teachers. In four of the eight options, Shaler took first or second [place], and took top prize by winning the most points in the options."
Most Shaler students who were involved in the challenge participated in several options and all participated in the threefold environmental action option, in which Shaler took first place.
Students were host to a composting contest and encouraged other students, staff and teachers to compost at home and educate their families about composting. They held a planting day for life skills students and fourth-grade GATE students and continued an existing project created by then-freshman Alexis Werner called Seeds of Hope. Alexis, 15, is from Etna.
Seeds of Hope focuses on showing appreciation for American troops overseas and their families by growing victory gardens. The resulting produce will be sold and proceeds donated to local Veterans Affairs programming. The remaining produce will be distributed to the soldiers' families in recycled dresser drawers painted with patriotic designs. Alexis and a group of students recently received the Jefferson Award for volunteerism for that project.
Caitlyn won second place in the opinion papers option for her 2,000-word, footnoted research paper on Nature Deficit Disorder.
The term Nature Deficit Disorder was coined by author Richard Louv, who said children are spending less time interacting with nature, to the detriment of both the children and the environment.
"I liked learning more about the environment, and we learned a lot from the other schools' projects," she said.
Rising seniors from Shaler Andrew Abt, 17, and Nathan McIntyre, 17, created a second place-winning, stop-action animation video for the multimedia option, using a Lego man and his Lego house to demonstrate the dangers of Marcellus Shale drilling. "I'm very competitive, and it was fun to have something academic that was a competition," Andrew said.
Because not completing an option counted against the schools, many students stepped beyond their comfort zones to do options to receive points. For example, GATE teacher Dave DiPasquale said because many students with theatrical talent were on a chorus trip when the performing arts option was due, "We were scrambling, but Sydney [Smyers], Peter [Biernesser] and Paul [Campbell] pulled through for us." The trio performed a song called "Alternative Fuels: Forget it and Regret It."
Sydney, 17, of Allison Park, is a rising senior. Peter, 17, of Glenshaw, and Paul, 18, of Shaler, are recent graduates.
Derek Reno, 17, a rising senior from Shaler, and Indigo Baloch, 16, a rising senior from Glenshaw, used local foods and native plants to create butternut squash lasagna with rosemary and morels, and organic, homegrown blackberry jam for the green cuisine option.
Rebecca Wakeley's first-place backpack design, which incorporated elements of the Fairchild Challenge mission statement, now graces backpacks and a poster and will be next year's Fairchild Challenge logo. Rebecca, 17, a rising senior from Shaler, also participated in the Environmental Action option by teaching composting to special needs students, gifted fourth-graders and a biology class.
"The challenge allowed us to incorporate so many different groups of people," Rebecca said, adding that she hopes the school's greenhouse, which includes a wind turbine, solar panel and rain barrel, will inspire other school districts to "think about how to be green."
Other students involved in the challenge were Alex Bowman, 15, of Glenshaw, rising sophomore; Nick Hills, 17, of Glenshaw, rising senior; Darren Kusar, 17, of Allison Park, rising senior; Justin Landry, 15, of Glenshaw, rising sophomore; Hanna Lavia, 14, of Etna, rising sophomore; Ava Puglin, 15, of Etna, rising spohomore; Max Reno, 14, of Shaler, rising sophomore; Alexis Schnepp, 16, of Reserve, rising junior; Jen Sheets, 15, of Glenshaw, rising sophomore; and Raeanna Wohlforth, 16, of Etna, rising junior.
"Everyone's strengths played into the accumulation of points. The students did this on volunteer time, not for academic credit, whereas some schools incorporated the challenge into their curriculum," Christina Palladino, another GATE teacher, said.
Mrs. Palladino and Mr. DiPasquale agreed that the school's greenhouse played a big part in the success of the Environmental Challenge option. The $12,000 greenhouse and surrounding planting area was built with Gable Foundation grants and the financial backing and support of the school district. For the challenge, the students used it to plant seeds, raise plants and hold the composting classes.
"The Fairchild Challenge award money will go to improve greenhouse facilities and restock it," Mrs. Palladino said.
Ms. Borger said the challenge will expand next year to include middle schools. "It's touching to me that these teenagers care so much about the environment," she said.
Jennifer Kissel, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org .