RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Turns out half of America's science teachers spend just two hours a year on climate change. So says a recent study in the journal Science. Let's meet a teacher now who spends a lot more time than that on the subject. It's something that her middle school students in Miami need to be thinking about right now. Rowan Moore Gerety of member station WLRN has the story.
ROWAN MOORE GERETY, BYLINE: Bertha Vazquez has taught earth sciences for 25 years.
BERTHA VAZQUEZ: For many years, I covered the basic standard probably like most people in the country do.
GERETY: And then she saw Al Gore speak at the University of Miami at a screening of "An Inconvenient Truth."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH")
AL GORE: If you look at the ten hottest years ever measured...
VAZQUEZ: This is 2007. And I've got to tell you, I lost sleep.
GERETY: The very next day, she says, she decided to change the way she taught. Florida is one state that hasn't adopted new science standards teaching middle schoolers about human-caused climate change.
VAZQUEZ: Why isn't Mercury a nice place to visit?
GERETY: In the classroom, Ms. Vazquez and her students are trying to tease out the distinction between carbon dioxide's contribution to the greenhouse effect, which helps make the planet warm enough for life to survive, and global warming.
VAZQUEZ: Carbon dioxide is perfectly harmless to me. I can breathe it in and breathe it out. What's the difference in terms of fossil fuels? Penny.
PENNY: You're bringing things out of the ground and you're adding to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
GERETY: After a year in Ms. Vazquez's class, 13-year-old Penny Richards says she reads climate news while she rides the bus to school. George Washington Carver Middle is a mile from the coast and just 8 feet above sea level. By the time Ms. Vazquez's students are raising families of their own, storm surges could mean waves lapping at their front doors. Even so, Vasquez says...
VAZQUEZ: If we just despair, it leads to inactivity. So I thought if they're doing positive things, it'll be helpful.
GERETY: Her students started with a look at the school building itself.
VAZQUEZ: So the first thing was these weather-stripping panels on the doors, and you see them also on the windows.
GERETY: On a walk around campus, Vazquez points out improvements her students instigated over the years or installed themselves - smart thermostats, more efficient light bulbs, reflective white paint on the roof to keep the building cooler.
VAZQUEZ: We can't get up there. So if you look...
GERETY: In class, Bertha Vazquez says she tries to balance the fear that comes with taking climate science seriously with measured optimism. She draws on examples of past environmental successes, like how the ozone layer is on the mend, to show what collective action can accomplish. After all, these are kids.
VAZQUEZ: You can't depress the hell out of them if you want them to start looking for solutions. So I don't really go there. Do I feel that way personally? Yes. But I - in class I put on my happy face.
GERETY: The pivotal moment in Vazquez's class often comes when her students open an app called Eyes on the Rise, where you plug in addresses and learn how far you are above sea level. One kid will say...
VAZQUEZ: Oh, I'm 10 feet above sea level, you know? I'll be OK. I go, yeah, you'll be on a little hill, but what about everybody else around you? We're all in this boat together.
GERETY: For students like seventh grader Penny Richards, the one who reads climate news on the bus, that's a sobering moment.
PENNY: Miami's basically at sea level. I live next to a canal. The life as we know it, we're going to have to move to an entirely new setting soon if we don't do something about this because my entire neighborhood will be underwater.
GERETY: The operative phrase there, of course, is do something. Richards and her classmates think we can. For NPR News, I'm Rowan Moore Gerety in Miami.