“When you contaminate the water, you contaminate yourself,” explains science teacher Bertha Vazquez to her students at Miami’s George Washington Carver Middle School. “You’re part of an ecosystem.”
Since 1991, Vazquez has taught students what they can do to save the planet through an integrated curriculum that weaves together science, human behavior and facts about climate change.
Her educational style have gone way beyond traditional textbook lectures and in-class science projects. She once brought a cheetah to class from the local zoo to raise awareness of endangered species. Noble Peace Prize winners deliver stimulating lectures. Students take field trips to count birds from the Everglades in local parks. Through lab assignments, her students learn how to create alternative energy without fossil fuel.
“I am planning on taking one of my classes to Yellowstone during spring break to study how the reintroduction of the wolf has positively impacted the whole ecosystem,” Vazquez says.
Helping her students make a difference through direct action goes to the heart of Vazquez' teaching philosophy . Around the Carver campus, her students have planted trees, cultivated vegetable gardens, weather-stripped buildings and implemented recycling programs.
But things changed in 2008 when four of her female students decided to make their school more "green" after conducting an energy efficiency audit. They realized conservation techniques were a way to save money and reduce the school’s carbon footprint. The school went along. After only one year, Carver saved $39,000 in electric bills by turning off lights, opening windows on cooler days and turning the school’s computers and air conditioners off at night.
News of the girls' success slowly spread and reached the ears of filmmaker Lynne Cherry, who learned about the initiative from Vazquez during an environmental conference in Washington D.C. “Her (Vazquez') presentation knocked my socks off. She told me about these girls that transformed the whole culture of their school,” Cherry says. Within a matter of weeks, Cherry flew down to Miami to film the girls.California-based Wild & Scenic Film Festival, a traveling showcase of short eco films on environmental activism and one of the largest events of its kind in the country. And there it caught the eye of Miami's Theodora Long.
Long is the executive director of Miami's Biscayne Nature Center. She was so impressed with the festival that she decided to bring it back to South Florida in celebration of Earth Day (April 22) and birthday of the center’s namesake and founder Marjory Stoneman Douglas.
“I was only allowed to pick out three hours worth of films,” Long recalls, selecting Cherry's film from among 300 entries without ever having known its local ties beforehand. “I thought the four girls made great progress in their school. I was an activist when I was their age, so they reminded me of when I got a bug in my head and wanted to change the world. It just so happened that film was made in Miami.”
Long will showcase “Dreaming in Green” and 30 other Wild & Scenic short films this Sunday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Biscayne Nature Center, 6767 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne. Tickets start at $25.