Shaler Area High School has won the yearlong Fairchild Challenge hosted by Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.
Forty gifted and talented education, or GATE, students constitute Shaler Area’s team, which competed against more than 20 regional schools to solve environmental issues.
Shaler Area has won first place six out of eight years that it has participated in the competition. This year’s prize was $1,000 for the team’s school.
“We just have some really outstanding kids who are willing to put in the extra time and effort that it takes,” said GATE teacher Kate Elder. “Christina (Palladino, fellow GATE teacher,) and I try to guide them through it, but ultimately, they are the ones who always impress us with the product that they produce.”
The Fairchild Challenge is a free, multidisciplinary environmental education outreach program designed by Miami’s Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Students receive scores for each of five challenges, and the scores are totaled for the overall winners.
The students won the first challenge, which involved creating 10 recipes that used every part of a plant, minimizing waste.
Michaela Brining, who just completed her sophomore year, prepared her grandmother Rosetta Poli’s pumpkin fritters with her grandfather, Antonio, a former chef at the defunct Poli’s Restaurant in Squirrel Hill.
“The recipe used parts of the pumpkin one would usually throw away after making a jack-o’-lantern,” Brining said. “Since my grandparents grew up during World War II, they did not have the luxuries we have today and learned how to conserve every part of their food.”
Students conducted research in order to create mixed-media posters depicting pollinators and fictional flowers for the second challenge. Junior Emily Ehrenberger earned third place and sophomore PJ Squire received a special merit award for their entries.
Shaler Area also won challenge three — environmental design — for Ehrenberger and Squire’s plan for developing a community garden and playground at the Pittsburgh Food Truck Park in Millvale.
For the fourth challenge, students wrote short fiction stories enlightening readers about environmental issues. Junior Evan Walsh wrote about chronic wasting disease in deer.
“My story about beekeeping was about a girl on a farm who learned how to bee keep while her parents were away on a business trip, so that she could safely get honey for them to sell without harming any bees,” said freshman Hannah Coleman.
Finally, the environmental action challenge was the most comprehensive. Students tracked environmental activities that they completed over a year, including growing produce for the Garden of Etna. Additionally, the team prepared lessons for Shaler Area preschoolers.
“We read the preschoolers books about healthy eating and provided them with healthy foods to take home, like salsa, apples and a packet of seeds for a vegetable that they were able to choose. I loved teaching the young children because they were so eager to learn,” Coleman said.
The high schoolers also hosted fourth-grade GATE students for an activity inspired by Elder’s visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s biocube exhibit. The Shaler Area students analyzed a cubic foot of outdoor space and catalogued their findings in the Smithsonian’s archives.
Elder said that the students enjoyed digging through the dirt and finding worms, caterpillars and meadow voles. They were surprised by the diversity in specimens found only 1 mile apart on the school grounds.
During “Fresh Fruit Fridays,” high school GATE students sampled local produce, introducing some to unfamiliar foods such as grapes and watermelon containing seeds, stone pears, peaches and nectarines.
Erica Cebzanov is a Tribune-Review contributor.