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.

The Fairchild Challenge Fosters Environmental Awareness, Scholarship, and Stewardship

The success of the program is continuously monitored and evaluated through the use of teacher and student surveys, teacher discussion forums, interviews, email communications, direct observations of the program at various school sites, and the quality of student entries.  Surveys indicate that after participating in one Challenge option:

  • 78% of high school students and 74% percent of middle school students became more interested in the environment.
  • 79% of middle and high school students found that their knowledge of and appreciation for the environment increased.
  • 58% of high school students that participated in either the Environmental Debates and/or environmental Immersion Day indicated an interest in pursuing a career in environmental science.

Worldwide Replication

The program has become a model beyond South Florida, influencing programs nationally and internationally. Fairchild staff has trained educators from as far away as Chicago, Pasadena, Utah, Costa Rica, South Africa and Venezuela to adapt the Fairchild Challenge to their institutions and communities.

Creating a Positive Outlet for Teenagers

Teenagers are at an interesting time in their lives; many believe they can do anything, and they have passion, time and energy.  By nature, they are bright, articulate, confident, assertive, fearless, and funny.  But teens are also confused, angry, shy, selfish, and narcissistic. Often, they are looking for something bigger than themselves to embrace and the Fairchild Challenge seems to provide an outlet. It allows diverse audiences of urban teens to connect with nature physically, emotionally, creatively, and intellectually. We, educators, parents, administrators, and community partners, should offer support and cheer loudly!

To learn more about the Fairchild Challenge and how you can replicate the program in your community, go to

To see a showcase of student work, go to

Born and raised in Port-of Spain, Trinidad, Ms. Lewis has a B.S. in biology, a B.Ed. in secondary school science and environmental science education and an M.S. in educational leadership. Miami, Florida has been her home for more than 20 years where she currently lives with her husband and two daughters, ages 17 and 18. Caroline Lewis spent 22 years as a science teacher and high school principal. She has been at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden since 2002, and directs the education programs currently engaging more than 55,000 students and thousands of adults, annually.  She designed and initiated the creative, competitive multidisciplinary Fairchild Challenge program to promote teenagers’ botanical and environmental awareness, scholarship, and stewardship. The Fairchild Challenge is spearheading a green movement in urban schools and is now being emulated in several cities, nationally and internationally.