The Fairchild Challenge Fellowship

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As a graduate student in a biology Ph.D. program, one of the most important components besides choosing a research project is finding a fellowship. Many fellowships come in the form of working as a teaching or research assistant in exchange for a tuition waiver and a stipend. I have a unique graduate fellowship in the joint program at Florida International University and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. My fellowship is through the Education Department at Fairchild where I help run the Fairchild Challenge Program.


The Fairchild Challenge is a multidisciplinary science competition that schools at all three levels (Elementary [ES], Middle [MS], and High [HS]) participate in across South Florida. At each level there is a variety of “challenges” that students compete in where they rack up points for their school. At the end of the year, during an awards celebration, students are recognized for their achievements and the top 16 winning schools receive banners and cash awards for their school. Working for this program has been very enlightening for me, as it has magnified how botanical gardens act as a proponent for research and education while simultaneously serving as a museum, laboratory, learning center, and conservation facility. Nationally, Miami-Dade public schools rank fourth largest and second largest minority-majority school system with 415 public schools including magnet and charter. Additionally, there are 263 private schools.  Of these schools, 318 are registered to compete in the Fairchild Challenge for 2017!!


Challenges are designed with the goal of reaching a large diversity of students and include art (ES/MS/HS) and cooking challenges (MS/HS), environmental debates (HS), ethnobotanical interviews with elders (MS), and school gardens (ES). All challenges ask students to research and observe the natural world around them. We have three citizen science challenges that span all three levels and engage students in real authentic research opportunities which otherwise lack from standard classroom settings. This year these projects partner with The Nature Conservancy, NASA (Growing Beyond Earth), and graduate student thesis projects.

Fairchild Challenge Staff from left: Alex Levine (Fairchild Graduate Fellow), Stacy Assael (Program Coordinator), Barbara Martinez (Program Coordinator), Amy Padolf (Director of Education), Nichole Tiernan (Fairchild Graduate Fellow)

Fairchild Challenge Staff from left: Alex Levine (Fairchild Graduate Fellow), Stacy Assael (Program Coordinator), Barbara Martinez (Program Coordinator), Amy Padolf (Director of Education), Nichole Tiernan (Fairchild Graduate Fellow)

In addition to the actual challenges, the program offers workshops and internships to students as well as professional development for teachers, focusing on botany, ecology, and South Florida’s natural environment. The program offers free field trips to schools so students can visit Fairchild’s 83 acres, the largest tropical botanic garden in the continental US. Furthermore, the Fairchild Challenge has blossomed outside of South Florida and trains partner programs all over the world. During a recent field work trip to Haiti, I provided this two-day educational training to education staff at Les Cayes Botanic Garden, Haiti Futur, a non-profit organization that supports education in Haiti, and local teachers.

As a program assistant, I have my hands in all aspects of the program. I help design the challenges and make sure that they match with Florida State Standards, I assist in creating the evaluation rubrics, organizing the judging panels, and crunching scores upon challenge completion. I also help organize and teach workshops like the Communicating Research Workshop, a workshop offered to high school juniors and seniors. Students interact with graduate students in a small setting where they learn techniques that will help them visualize and present the data that they collect for various challenges. This past summer I chose four of the competitive Fairchild Challenge Internship applicants to work on a plant anatomy project that refined protocols vital to my Ph.D. dissertation research. Over the course of six weeks, I trained these highly motivated students to work in the imaging lab at Fairchild to visualize and characterize venation patterns in leaves of the plant family (Apocynaceae) that I study.

I am so inspired by this fellowship and for the opportunity to support educators who really are the ones empowering the next generation of policy makers, educated voters, research scientists and environmentally conscious citizens. The Fairchild Challenge Team is so passionate about what our program offers to education that coming to work (most days) doesn’t even feel like “work”. I am grateful to call my co-workers friends.

Elementary Fairchild Challenge

Middle School Fairchild Challenge

High School Fairchild Challenge