Opinion Papers: High School Challenge #5 in the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps

by Melissa Harding


During the latest challenge of the Fairchild Challenge at Phipps, students were asked to either write a film review based on the documentary Dirt! The Movie or an opinion paper on the environmental impact of their food choices. The first option concerns Dirt! The Movie, a film that investigates the importance of soil in our lives. Students were asked to write a brief synopsis of the film and critically evaluate its message; they were asked to think about soil-related issues in western PA and how they personally relate to soil. The second option asked students to look at the relationship between food and the environment through the lens of soil health, carbon footprint, the effects of pesticides and climate change. They were to critically investigate the effect that their own, personal diet has on the environment and to discuss how they would change or defend their current eating habits. Each paper required students to cite at least five literary sources and draw some hard conclusions about their personal choices. This is not an easy task for anyone, but over 60 students participated in this challenge; the entries they submitted were thought-provoking to say the least.

The first place winner of the film review, from Moon Area High School, found creative and moving ways to connect the plight of dirt in the film to that of our region. Talking about the effects of mining and poor water management in western PA, the author cites a local bike trail as a specific example. The colorful, orange puddles that dot the trail belie the iron oxide found in the water and soils from years of strip mining. The author writes, “Degraded dirt equals degraded people; we must learn to embrace dirtiness so that we may live.”

The second place winner, from North Allegheny Senior High School, wrote about how the film helped her to understand a side of the conservation movement that she had never considered. “This documentary proved to me over and over that dirt is critical to life. It contains the minerals essential to life and there are thousands of life forms in just one handful of dirt. Like one of the scientists in the documentary said, “Dirt feels pain but we just cannot understand its language’. ”

The first place winner of the opinion paper, from Gateway Senior High School, wrote about the energy required to grow the food that we eat. She looked into the carbon footprint made by farming machinery, processing and transportation. Investigating the carbon footprint of an apple, the author cites the cost as 1.67 kW of energy per pound, which does not even into account the energy required to cook and prepare the fruit. She also talks about food waste as another problem with the current food supply; 200,000 tons of edible food is wasted daily. After conducting the research for this paper, the author concluded that she would try to eat less packaged food and try to grow some of her own this coming summer.

The second place winner, from Moon Area High School, wrote about the importance of soil health and the effects of fertilizer on the environment. Looking into the dynamic impact of soil on the food supply, the author writes that fertilizing poor soils both hurt the water supply and contribute to the emissions of greenhouse gases. She goes on to say that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air actually slows down plant growth and will ultimately hurt the food supply for future generations. Focusing on the problem of fertilizer and pesticides, the author resolved to eat more organic foods and try to avoid genetically modified offerings.

While there can only be three winners for each portion of the challenge, all of these students are winners for learning more about the impacts of soil and food on the environment. To quote one of the winning entries, “The more people who are educated, the greater the possibility that change can happen.”

The above photo was taken by Christie Lawry.

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