Standing at the water’s edge on Florida International University's Biscayne Bay campus, Nicholas Ogle shows a crowd of teenagers what looks like a giant, rotten green bean.
“We don’t want any mushiness anywhere, especially at the top,” he says, then chucks the specimen to the side.
Ogle, an environmental coordinator with FIU, is showing this marine-science class from the new MAST magnet school at FIU how to pick out a healthy mangrove seedling. The students will then be sent to duck in and out of the mangrove roots at the coastline, collecting seedlings — “propagules,” the scientist calls them — to eventually be replanted in a mangrove restoration project.
Mangroves are often cited as a first line of defense against the impact of sea-level rise. And in many ways, so is this interaction between the students and Ogle.
Florida doesn’t require students to learn about the effects of climate change — such as sea-level rise — until high school. But in South Florida, kids observe rising oceans all around them. They see them on television, online and in-person.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the sea level in Miami has risen more than nine inches in the past 100 years — and scientists expect a big increase in the next century.
So South Florida schools and outside organizations are forming partnerships to build an educational bridge connecting what students learn in school to what they see in their changing environments.
From Backyard To Classroom
“To have kids be outside, to see what life is like around here in the natural world … that really shapes the way they’re going to be in the future,” says Kirk Nieveen, a science-curriculum support specialist for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.
Nieveen says South Florida schools introduce local climate science as early as the elementary level. In Miami-Dade County alone, 66 schools offer environmental- or marine-science education. MAST at FIU and a dozen other schools focus on the environment.
“You don’t want to scare kids,” Nieveen says, “but at the same time, you want them to become aware of things.”
He said he was pleasantly surprised to see recent news coverage of Miami Beach's astronomical spring tide, also called "King Tide," that looked a lot like tidal modeling taught in Miami-Dade schools.
“We build the foundation within school curriculum and then also provide opportunities for kids to get involved locally,” Nieveen says.
Those opportunities often come from partnerships with environmental nonprofits, like the environmental curriculum offered through the Fairchild Challenge at Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, or the Everglades field trips led by the Arthur R. Marshall Foundation.
Mary Crider, an education specialist with the Marshall Foundation, recently designed a sea-level rise curriculum that she plans to bring to classrooms across South Florida. She says empowering students to act on seal-level rise is key to helping them learn, without making them feel overwhelmed and defeated.
“There’s phases that they go through when they get all this information,” Crider says. “The first one is kind of just, 'Oh my gosh, this is going to happen? I think I’ll just ignore it.' The next phase, they’re like, 'Okay, I think I can absorb this information, but now what can I do?' ”
To that end, Crider gives students a list of "next steps" that includes tips such as: document what you see on social media; talk to family and friends about what you’ve learned; and connect with local clubs, libraries and science museums.
The Young Environmentalist
Crider's approach has worked for Miami Beach resident Alejandra Andavert-Seemann.
At 9 years old, Alejandra carries business cards. She likes spending weekends picking up trash on the beach with her best friend. Sometimes she brings her dog.
Last year, she ran for third-grade class president. Her platform? Sea turtles. When she won, she followed through on her campaign promise and helped the class adopt three turtles: Lee, Marmalade and Toby.
Alejandra is concerned about sea-level rise. She worries about ice caps melting and polar bears dying. She worries the land in her neighborhood will be underwater.
But she says she tries not to think about it too much. She thinks people can do a better job of preventing catastrophe.
“I think we should try to tell people and put signs up, or make it that we have to stop littering," she says. "And try to help the environment more.”
“I think sometimes Alejandra gets a little too concerned and you want to make sure it’s something under her control,” says Alejandra’s mom, Stephanie. “We talk about cleaning bottle caps off the beach, [removing] plastic bags out of the water — things under her control.”
Corbin Bolies, 15, can’t remember when he first learned about sea-level rise. It’s just part of his life. But he thinks most adults don’t really get it yet.
“But as they learn more about it, as it’s coming on the news, I feel they’ll start worrying,” Bolies says, watching his MAST classmates root around mangroves looking for seedlings. “By the time my children have their own children, the coastline’s going to be gone.”
Rather than fret, though, the 15-year-old takes charge.
"It’s us that’s making the sea level rise along with natural factors," he says, "but we as humans should feel compelled to help restore our earth to its natural beauty.”