Fairchild’s Challenge opens students’ eyes
Salome Collante’s tale of the friendship between a dolphin and an angelfish won her a spot in the Fairchild Challenge.
The Challenge is a program created by the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens to raise environmental awareness among young students in South Florida. In Salome’s tale, the dolphin and angelfish work together to help clean a part of the ocean that had been destroyed by human waste.
And the friends end up by asking: “If we do not throw trash where humans live, why would they do that to our home?”
Salome, 12, is a student at Centennial Middle School in Cutler Bay, a municipality in the southern part of Miami-Dade County. She was one of more than 100,000 students to participate in the Fairchild Challenge last year.
Marion Litzinger, who manages the Challenge, said the competition was designed to create an interest for the environment through projects that appeal to students’ creativity and talents, such as the fable submitted by Salome.
The Challenge allows students to discover the environment through songs, skits, fashion shows and art, alongside the traditional research projects. “We don’t usually get to do that kind of stuff,” Salome said. “It’s a creative way to get us to understand.”
Caroline Lewis, the former director of education at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, created the Challenge 10 years ago. She launched it with a group of 1,400 high school students.
Her reasons for fostering interest in the environment, Litzinger said, are part of the group’s mission of 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 and recognize that individuals do indeed make a difference.”
At the end of the Challenge, the 16 schools in each division with the highest point totals receive cash prizes. The top school receives $1,000. The next five scorers get $500 each, and the following 10 get $250 each. The money goes to the environmental programs of the schools.
Participants also receive family guest passes to visit Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, a collection of exotic and rare tropical plants assembled on a lush 83-acre property in southeast Coral Gables.
“This is a program that teaches science by stealth,” said Juan Rivera Jr., the coordinator for the Fairchild Challenge in middle schools. “An artist who has no tie to biology becomes engaged in science when he submits a drawing detailing the different parts of a flower.”
Students like Salome are able to learn about plant life when they research the plants they use on the outfit they will present at the fashion design challenge.
They learn about the medicinal uses of plants — and become engaged in the communities outside their schools — by interviewing senior citizens familiar with those plants. Research projects lead to lessons about biodiesel fuel and the water supply system in Florida.
“At this level, I don’t know how to get students to learn so much without getting them out there,” said Donna East, who teaches gifted classes at Centennial Middle School and is the leader of the Fairchild Challenge there.
The multidisciplinary appeal has attracted more than 230 schools in South Florida to the program. Fairchild has shared its method of teaching science to students with 13 satellite partners, nine in the United States and four in other countries.
“With the different options we can celebrate all schools, even those with limited resources,” Litzinger said.
Thad Foote coordinates the Challenge for high schools. Foote, who grew up in the leafy Coral Gables area, sees the program as good news for a metropolitan locale where the loss of green space to development continues unabated.
“People stereotypically don’t see Miami as environmentally active,” said Foote, whose father served as president of the University of Miami for two decades until he retired in 2001. “Some get frustrated by this, but others see the opportunity for growth, to become active. And it’s happening. It’s amazing.”
With plans to expand the program to universities, Litzinger, Rivera and Foote say they hope upcoming generations will be better informed — and better equipped — to handle environmental issues.
“You end up with kids that become empowered with all the information they are receiving,” said Barbara Hobbs, a returning judge for the spoken word poetry challenge.
With the spoken word challenge, Hobbs has seen students gain confidence as they receive praise for their creativity. For many children who come from under-resourced schools, it may be the first time such praise has come their way.
Fairchild also makes it easy for teachers to incorporate the challenges into their classes, designing them to meet the Sunshine State Standards set by the Florida Department of Education.
Sunset Elementary has been the winner in the elementary school division for the past two years. Maria Sandoval, who teaches gifted classes at Sunset, found it easy to include the Challenge in the curriculum of her school. She takes time from math and science class to bring students to the school gardens they create. There, she incorporates nature into their lessons.
Students also take home what they learn, and they encourage their parents to recycle and even make their own gardens, Sandoval said.
“The great thing about the Challenge is that it makes learning real,” she said. “It takes the children out of books and into the real world.”