When it came time for science fairs this year at George Washington Carver Middle School, students had to look no further than their backyards for inspiration.
A group of students and science teacher Bertha Vazquez researched the effects of a former incinerator nicknamed “Old Smokey,” which faced Carver’s physical education field and contaminated surrounding areas when it released toxic metals before it was closed in 1970.
While Vazquez had hoped the research would teach the students about how to raise awareness in the community, the project attracted attention from outside of just the neighborhood when she submitted their work to Samsung’s nationwide Solve for Tomorrow contest.
Carver was named a grand prize winner Tuesday and will receive more than $140,000 in technology products for the school.
The national contest looked for how students use what they learned in the classroom to explore community issues and spur public action.
More than 2,300 middle and high schools from across the country entered the contest and entries were narrowed down to state winners. From those schools, Carver and fourteen others were selected as national finalists and competed in a March in-person pitch event at SXSWedu in Austin.
Vazquez and two students traveled to Austin to present the project to a panel of judges. Sophie Barry, 14, was one of the students who went to the three-day event.
Sophie first became interested in the topic when she learned some of the parks near school were being temporarily closed for soil contamination.
“I was really concerned because I had always played in Merrie Christmas Park growing up,” Sophie said. “I had even met my first friend there.”
The park closures were around the time Vazquez had assigned her eighth-grade biology class a science project so Sophie decided to focus her project on the issue.
For her project, Sophie chose to test the lead and arsenic levels of the soil at the school field, Merrie Christmas Park on South Le Jeune Road, Jaycee Park on Hardee Road and her own backyard in Coral Gables.
She ordered a test kit online and collected soil from the different sites. Since Merrie Christmas and Jaycee Park were fenced off, she collected samples from near the perimeter of the parks.
Sophie then took the samples to a professional lab to be tested to double-check to her own findings. The results determined that all of the soil from the parks and fields contained arsenic and lead.
“The results were below the dangerous level, so the project relieved my fears,” Sophie said. “I was able to let a lot of people who were worrying know that it was OK.”
The school also won the Community Choice award with nearly 11,000 public online votes for the video they created called “Old Smokey’s Dirty Secret,” which shared how the students were engaging the city and community with the scientific evidence and information they had collected.
Students attended a public hearing by the city of Miami where they learned the groundwater near Old Smokey had unsafe levels of lead and cadmium. The students decided to invite the engineer whose company tested all of the samples for the city to teach them how to test soil samples and interpret the data.
They also invited the attorney from the University of Miami Law Environmental Justice Project, who worked with the city on the issue to come to Vazquez’s class.
With the information they learned, the students put together a website to inform the public. A student’s mom, who is a computer information systems specialist, taught the students how to construct a website.
One of the students involved, Emma Bennett, said she learned a lot from working with the different experts.
“It was a really big learning experience for us being able to work with engineers and go to the commission meeting,” said Emma, 13. “We got to connect what we were learning in class with what was happening in the community.”
Emma says she and her fellow classmates are thrilled to have won the grand prize.
“When we found out we were overjoyed because our school does not have the latest technology,” she said. “My elementary school had Smart Boards and we are still using overhead projectors. With this money, we can seriously benefit.”
However, Vazquez said the most valuable thing her students have gained is that they now know they can help guide public policy.
As grand prize winners, the students will travel to Washington in April to meet with government officials.
“The students really gained a voice and became confident telling people about their project,” she said. “They learned they won’t be ignored by powerful people and that is a big deal.”