Photo: Dominic Agostini
Floridian of the Year 2019
Florida environmental science teacher Nikki Mosblech encourages students to practice her lessons in society
Test scores are one thing, says Nikki Mosblech, but her goal is to create good citizens.
Vero Beach High School’s dismissal bell sounded at 2:05 p.m., but 45 minutes later Nikki Mosblech’s classroom is still teeming with life. A group of students — members of the school’s new Q+ Club — are talking and laughing in the front of the room. Mosblech helped the kids get the group started last year to address a “glaring gap in terms of mental health and support” for the school’s LGBTQ students.
Less obvious, until Mosblech points them out, are the handful of worms digesting food scraps in a see-through composting bin by the door.
The critters are a lab component of lessons that Mosblech is teaching her environmental science students. “Right now, we’re talking about waste and garbage, and so one of the things when diverting materials from landfills and incinerators is the ability to compost,” she explains.
As the worms digest the apple cores, banana peels and paper waste her students bring to class, they expel nutrientrich castings, or worm poo. Her students add that compost to cylindrical gardens of herbs, carrots, lettuce and other plants they tend to in the school’s courtyard.
Mosblech uses the composting and gardening experience to teach her kids about soil science, carbon and nitrogen cycles, the impacts of agriculture and more. Some take a shine to gardening and carry seeds home with them to plant. “It just gives that kind of initial push,” she says.
The seed for Mosblech’s foray into teaching was planted shortly after she graduated from the University of Scranton and spent a year teaching English in South Korea. She fell in love with education. She returned to the United States and decided to move to Vero Beach with her then-boyfriend (now husband) after his parents bought a house in Sebastian. Both got teaching jobs at Vero Beach High School. He teaches Spanish, and she teaches advanced placement and honors environmental science, as well as honors chemistry.
When she started teaching environmental science in 2005, Mosblech had just one class and 20 students. This year, she’s up to six sections and a total of 180 students. “I don’t think it’s me. I think it’s the right time, the right students,” she says.
Her students’ pass rate on the AP environmental science exam exceeded the national rate by 13.5 percentage points last year.
It’s not just about the exam though. Mosblech, who was Indian River County’s 2019 Teacher of the Year, says her goal is to encourage her students to be good citizens. “I kind of call the class Global Citizenship because it gives them an idea of how they fit into the world around them and how they can make better decisions,” she says.
At the beginning of every school year, she has them collect all the garbage they create and lug it around school with them. Some quickly abandon using plastic water bottles and other disposable items. It doesn’t always endear her to parents. “Parents get annoyed with me because students go home and say, ‘I’m not using this and I’m not using that.’ ”
During the 2017-18 school year, her students collected 2,000 plastic trays from the cafeteria and hung them from an oak tree in the school’s courtyard to make a statement about waste. The school administration took notice and switched to biodegradable trays. “Our ultimate goal was the washable ones that we all used to use,” she says.
She also pushes her students to take the lessons they learn into the community. They regularly participate in beach cleanups, and her room is decorated with sculptures of turtles, crabs and jellyfish her students constructed from the plastic they’ve collected. This year, she says, some of her students are lobbying local businesses to stop using straws and other plastic items that litter the environment.
Mosblech, 38, took a break from teaching to earn her doctorate in ecology in 2012 from the Florida Institute of Technology. Her graduate work led her into the Andes Mountains in Peru, where she analyzed pollen grains trapped in mud on lake bottoms and compared the fossilized pollen with the level of oxygen isotopes in stalagmites from caves, a reliable indicator of historical rainfall levels.
The results painted a picture of how the Andes’ forests have responded to climate change over the past 15,000 years or so. “In my research, they just became these weedy forests,” she explains, filled with raccoons and other “generalists” that survive just about any conditions but devoid of the slow-growing and more sensitive “specialists” that create ecological diversity.
After earning her degree, Mosblech returned to Vero Beach High School and a job she acknowledges is “draining” at times.
She sees a fair number of students dealing with “really traumatic experiences,” such as parents dying or parents getting arrested. “You have all these students coming in with all this emotional baggage, and I’ve found the hardest thing is to try to stay positive every single day,” she says.
“If you can be that for them just 50 minutes of their day, it makes the biggest difference to potentially where they’re going to end up.”
Eventually, it all cycles back. “I see so much optimism and hope in the students that come through my classroom, and they see so much and get so much optimism from the class, and they go out and share it with their family and friends, and they become really passionate, and that’s really what keeps me going.”
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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