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May 262009

By Harriet Blake

The best teachers inspire. Their grasp and excitement of a subject is contagious. Talking to Bertha Vazquez, Susan Vincent and Patrick Curley, you can’t come away without absorbing at least a sliver of their passion for the environment.

This month the National Environmental Education Foundation recognized Vazquez, Vincent and Curley for their innovative approaches to environmental education. Bertha Vazquez, a middle school teacher at a magnet school in Coral Gables, Fla., won the Richard C. Bartlett Education Award, named after the chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Texas. Patrick Curley, a middle and high-school teacher who works with at-risk students in Jacksonville, NC, and Susan Vincent, an earth and marine science teacher in East Harlem, NY, won certificates of merit.

“Kids have always related to the environment,” says Vazquez, who teaches at George Washington Carver Middle School in the Miami-Dade school system. “Teachers need to look for real-life connections that kids can relate to.”

Showing kids how caring for the environment affects them at home or in school is something they can understand, she says.

Vazquez, a biology major, says that today people feel the same about the environment as they did in the ‘70s. “The difference is,” she says, “that this time there’s a more practical side that people can relate to such as installing compact fluorescent light bulbs, driving a hybrid car or using cloth bags for grocery shopping.”

Vazquez, for instance, drives a Volkswagen that runs on biofuel made from chicken fat.

Vincent, who teaches earth science and marine science at the Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem, says she sees kids changing their habits. “We go to Central Park, walking from 110th street to 59th street. They can’t believe that people trash our parks. Despite the fact that our inner city students have had little experience with nature, once you turn them onto the environment, they become passionate.”

Vincent also has taken her students (see photo, above right) to such places as Orchard Beach in the Bronx. “They do clean-up projects where they take the train to the beach, pick up bags of trash, and see firsthand the effect that plastic trash has on marine animals. The kids see the trash and become indignant,” she says.

Vincent’s college prep public school is 100 percent minority girls. “They view the environment as the underdog and this resonates with them,” she says. The Young Women’s Leadership School is one of five urban all-girls public schools supported by the YWL Network.

Curley works with kids who have been taken from their regular high school because of behavioral or academic issues. This past year he was hired as an ENVISIONS coach for the entire Onslow County Schools. He brings students to a 66-acre pine forest at the county’s Learning Center where he teaches them to become “citizen scientists.” In this role, the kids learn how to monitor the local creek and track bird breeding.

In one of Curley’s projects, his students built a nature trail for the Izaak Walton League, one of the country’s first conservation organizations formed in 1922 to maintain America’s outdoors for future generations. The trail project included planting native plants and building and maintaining an oyster shell recycling station.