02/28/2014 05:26 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2014

On Top of Old Smokey: A Miami Middle School's Community Awareness Campaign

G.W. Carver Middle School in Miami, Florida, along with science teacher Bertha Vazquez and her students, are one of 15 national finalists in Samsung's "Solve for Tomorrow" education contest which gives schools across the United States the opportunity to raise interest in science, technology, engineering, and math by awarding their schools with a share of more than $2 million in technology. The "Solve for Tomorrow" contest has also provided an opportunity for Carver students to give back to their school and the surrounding community. Working alongside venerated colleagues at Carver like Ms. Vazquez -- public school teachers passionate about education and teaching public school students committed to making the future better and brighter for everyone is one of the many perks of my being a Language Arts teacher there. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit with Ms. Vazquez and talk about her students' accomplishment:

Patrick Redmond: Congratulations to your students and to you. How did the opportunity to participate in the contest present itself?

Bertha Vazquez: Samsung launched this contest in 2010 and this year I thought, "Wow, I'd love to put state-of-the-art technology in the hands of my colleagues and students." Also, I knew it was a terrific way to promote science education. After all, my job as a teacher is to provide my students with a challenge and then allow them the time to think critically and creatively, to give them resources and support so they can figure it out and how best to address it.

PR: What was your goal or objective for the students? Did the class have input? A voice?

B.V.: Well, I was planning to focus on Carver's energy saving efforts. For the past six years, students and staff have developed ways to save energy around the school. We've saved over $64,000 in electricity, implemented a recycling program, added hundreds of bushes and trees around campus, and taught environmental lessons across all subject areas. But then last summer, we received word that conceivably could have been our greatest environmental challenge: The City of Miami announced that the building facing Carver's physical education field, a former incinerator nicknamed "Old Smokey" which burned 300 tons of garbage per day for decades until it was closed in 1970, had released toxic metals into the surrounding areas. The city soon closed five local parks, all of which were former landfills, for the incinerator waste. My students became quite interested. They decided that "Old Smokey" should be the focus of their Samsung project. They went to the City of Miami's informational meetings, they invited the city environmental engineer to come to their class and speak, and they learned how to test the soil themselves. Then, they consolidated all the information and data on the website G.W. Carver Solve for Tomorrow making it accessible to the public.

P.R.: In Language Arts, we work with "Essential Questions" such as How can literature serve as a vehicle for social change? It seems the question could be framed for a science class, too. Does this kind of "social change" conversation take place in your classroom?

B.V.: Absolutely. Science cannot be taught in a vacuum. Sound public policy is often based on scientific evidence. For example, climate science is prompting governments, both local and national, to reevaluate energy policies and our dependence on fossil fuels. As far as this issue is concerned, environmental science and awareness has urged the City of Miami to take action. Decades ago, when the ash from "Old Smokey" was looming over our city, its dangers were not a concern or even considered. Today, Miami is making a conscientious effort to address the hazardous legacy of "Old Smokey."

P.R.: What kinds of transformations in terms of community awareness have you witnessed in your students because of their participation in the contest?

B.V.: Students are realizing they do have a voice and their project is getting serious media attention. They were so thrilled that an environmental engineer took the time to speak with them. I think they were a little intimidated at first, going to city meetings and asking adults serious questions. I have witnessed their confidence grow by leaps and bounds over the last few months.

P.R.: Has the neighboring community responded in any way? The school's administration? The Miami-Dade school district?

B.V.: The Miami-Dade school district has given us phenomenal support, so has our administration. As educators themselves, I think our school leaders truly understand the value in this kind of learning. And the community is talking, spreading the word to friends and neighbors. They are relieved to know the soil samples taken near "Old Smokey" contained heavy metal amounts well below levels considered to be toxic. We are learning that the ash once spread by air is not the problem; it's the remnant ash that was dumped in landfills now transformed into city parks that poses the greatest risk.

P.R.: So your students made a video highlighting their efforts. Are folks checking it out? Who's eligible to vote? When will your students learn the results?

B.V.: Yes. The video is getting a number of hits and everyone is eligible to vote! And they can vote every day through March 13. The number of votes is updated daily on the Samsung website.


G. W. Carver Middle School is recognized as an "A" school by the Florida Department of Education and is one of the top ranked public schools in the State. It is also a U.S. Department of Education "Blue Ribbon School of Excellence." Each year since 2002 Carver has been recognized by Magnet Schools of America with the "Magnet School of Excellence Award."

Bertha Vazquez is a Science and National Board Certified teacher at G.W. Carver Middle School, a Miami-Dade Public Schools Region 4 "Teacher of the Year," and winner of the Charles C. Bartlett National Education Award.

J. Patrick Redmond is a Language Arts teacher, a Kaylie Jones Books writer, and a contributing blogger for The Huffington Post.