An Environmental Education Program that Works in Miami and Around the World

By — Nature Deficit Disorder Special Edition Contributor
Updated on May 17, 2010

Today, large culturally and socio-economically diverse populations suffer from limited access to green spaces, overscheduled agendas, and an abundance of indoor, electronic, sedentary entertainment. Miami is an example of one of these populations and is seen as a microcosm of future America. With more than 340,000 students, our public school district, the fourth largest in the United States, is culturally diverse with a “minority majority” – 61% Hispanic, 27% black, 9% white, and 3% other. 

Botanic Garden Addresses Urban Needs

At Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Miami, Florida, we measure success in numbers of species saved through research and conservation and lives changed through education and engagement. In 2002, we launched the Fairchild Challenge. The Challenge encourages thousands of urban teenagers to better appreciate the beauty and value of nature and foster their environmental awareness, scholarship, and stewardship. Over 45,000 South Florida students from 132 middle and high schools are currently involved in the program.

What is the Fairchild Challenge?

The Fairchild Challenge is an annual, standards-based, environmental education outreach program of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. The Challenge:
•    Offers a menu of interdisciplinary options for grades 6 to 8 and 9 to 12.
•    Attracts students of diverse interests, abilities, talents and backgrounds.
•    Empowers teenagers to engage in civic life and encourages them to become energetic and knowledgeable members of their communities.

Because it combines education and adventure, the Challenge has caught on, growing dramatically from 1,400 student participants when it was launched as a pilot program in 2002 to more than 45,000 students six years later.

Diverse Learners Benefit from the Fairchild Challenge

The Fairchild Challenge and its menu of Challenge options can appeal to diverse learners and provide creative, authentic opportunities for teenagers to connect with nature. The program offers something for the scholar and the slug, the writer and the performer, the artist and the scientist, and the designer and the debater.

The Fairchild Challenge fosters interest in the environment by encouraging students to:

  • Appreciate the beauty and value of nature.
  • Develop critical thinking skills.
  • Understand the need for biodiversity and conservation.
  • Tap community resources.
  • Become actively engaged citizens.
  • Recognize that individuals do indeed make a difference.

The Fairchild Challenge Helps Schools in Need 

Annually, the Challenge offers a menu of separate but parallel points by panels of judges. Goals are attainable for all schools involved. All schools surpassing this year’s goal of 700 points for middle schools and 900 points for high schools win the Fairchild Challenge Award. The top-scoring schools are given special recognition, as are individual students who excel in the Challenge.

Mindful of teachers’ workloads, the Fairchild Challenge options dovetail with public school curricula and are aligned with benchmarks of State Education Standards. The Challenge encourages and supports under-resourced schools with such incentives as mini-grants for gardens at schools, sapling trees and native plants, specialized workshops, professional development seminars, transportation subsidies, books, and additional resources for such options as research projects, opinion papers and art. To promote civic engagement, voter registration is offered at all high school Challenge events. In addition to school visits from Challenge staff, teachers and students encountering obstacles know they can turn to the Challenge team for help with solutions.

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