FOCUS ON FIRE
IN THE FOREST
FUNCTION OF FIRE
A GRASP ON SMOKE
BEYOND THE BLAZES
By Richard Chapman
On a blue-sky spring day at the end of March 2005, high school students and teachers watched two Department of Natural Resources’ fire technicians torch nine good-sized plots of bunchgrass, knapweed and cheatgrass on an acre of DNRC land a short walk from Missoula’s Big Sky High School.
Each plot was sectioned off into squares (or “cells”) and random numbers of these cells were chosen to answer questions the eight classes of sophomores had come up with before the fires were set. Each of the questions was to be answered using scientific methods of inquiry.
When wildfires sweep across the land, what happens to the insects? What becomes of the bacteria in the soil? The moisture? The nutrients? How long does it take for the grasses and plants to come back? Do they come back in the same mix or does one species take over?
The eight BSHS science classes were trained by Jenny Woolf and Andrew Whiteley, UM graduate students in wildlife biology. They helped the classes come up with questions that could be answered with a variety of methods: random cells clearly identified for pre- and post-fire measurements; comparative observations using experimental plots with two different burn-intensity variables — control plots with none; and clearly outlined procedures that anyone could repeat.
Science can be a tough sell for classroom-weary 16-year-olds, says BSHS teacher David Oberbillig. And according to Woolf, “It’s not cool for students to think science is fun, so our job is to get them excited, earn their respect and get them engaged.”
Both agree that going outdoors and getting hands-on with what they’ve been learning indoors makes a great deal of difference.
“This is really exciting,” says sophomore Kallan Kropp, “and I’m glad we can actually take all the stuff we learn in class and put it to use.”
BSHS teacher Kathleen Kennedy says many of her students had no idea what doing science involved, and one of them said, “You mean you can actually earn money doing this outside?”
The burn plots are among several outdoor science-education laboratories in Missoula and many throughout the nation. They are all part of the National Science Foundation’s GK-12 program. GK-12 gets university-level graduate teaching fellows — that’s the “G” —involved in K-12 science education and scientific research — much of it hands-on and outdoors in schoolyards and nearby habitats.
Fifth-graders at Target Range Middle School in Missoula have been involved in invasive species studies on land just beyond the school’s boundaries, and second- and fourth-graders at Missoula’s Lewis and Clark School spent part of last year in habitat restoration projects. K-3 students at Florence Carlton School in the Bitterroot Valley designed an outdoor classroom, and Sussex School students developed a native plant teaching garden.
Locally, the National Science Foundation-funded program is called Ecologists, Educators and Schools: Partners in GK-12 Education — ECOS for short. Program director Carol Brewer asks, “What better outdoors learning place is there than Montana? Kids can learn about environmental relationships on the edge of every schoolyard, and they can learn how to set up ecological experiments with the help of their teachers and the University’s graduate students.”
It’s not just being on the
outer perimeters of the schoolyard that facilitate
learning. Whiteley and Woolf
Brewer says that “controlled burns are not your typical classroom experience, but fire is part of our lives in western Montana, and it’s important to find ways for students to understand the ecological implications.”
Oberbillig finds his students to be extremely creative and curious and says that “being out-of-classroom works. The structure of the classroom dissolves and engagement happens.”
This proved to be true as well for students standing in the Bitterroot River using random sampling techniques to determine fish populations along the river’s edge. “Any time we have a way to demonstrate science as a process and put it in students’ hands, it engages them,” Oberbillig says.
The principal goal of these projects was, in fact, to show that science is a process and that it can be fun as well as engaging. These goals by and large were met, Woolf says.
In some cases there were clear differences between the pre-burn and post-burn measurements. In others, there weren’t. The questions having to do with insects, for example, produced ambiguous results. Oberbilling told his students, “Well, we might have to ask clearer questions, or do more replicates, maybe narrow our focus.”
Woolf put it this way: “Things went wrong here and there, and so students got to see that failures happen. That’s useful, too. Besides, in this setting it’s better to have student involvement than data that’s pristine-pure.”
ECOS is about more than just getting students involved in science outside the classroom. It’s also about getting people together. In the controlled burn event, Woolf celebrates the “great collaboration” among several University programs, the DNRC and the Forest Service Fire Lab.
“Permits came freely and so did resources, and lots of non-ECOS volunteers from UM’s wildlife and biology programs came out,” she says.
Carol Brewer sees all this as more than cooperation. “It’s about building partnerships. In some of the K-6 settings we’ve even had kids bring their parents to see the effects of their experiments.” She points out that there’s a national movement toward involving citizens in scientific observation and data gathering, and cites as an example annual Christmas bird counts.
“It’s not just about getting students involved,” she says. “It’s about all citizens, all agencies and all levels of education.”
One of the side benefits for the University graduate students who spent several hours each week in high school classrooms was “watching teachers teach,” Woolf says.
As for the high school teachers, Oberbillig says, “my own scientific curiosity was engaged by the ECOS program. It was motivating for me to take a new look at a familiar curriculum. It has added to the way I teach.” And for Kennedy ECOS was a “wonderful opportunity” to reconnect with the University — “a tremendous resource.”
Exactly right — music to the ears of those who hope ECOS can create a national model of how hands-on research experiences at the K-12 level can improve the teaching and learning of science.
For more information, e-mail Brewer at firstname.lastname@example.org.