Burning Issues: Integrating the Curriculum With a Fire Ecology Unit

Two Idaho classroom teachers share their strategies for integrating fire into the curriculum and meeting state mandated learning goals.


Fire is Elementary

by Kathy Comstock

The new school year is off to a blazing start in the fourth grade here at Andrus Elementary in Meridian, Idaho.

Thanks to my participation this summer in Project Learning Tree’s Burning Issues: Fire Ecology workshop, my students are fully immersed in our Earth Patrol reading unit.  While I have always enjoyed teaching this particular unit in the past, never before has my class been so actively involved with the story.  The FireWorks curriculum presented at the workshop has provided me with wonderful new hands-on, minds-on experiments and investigations that are enriching each and every one of my students as I integrate the content areas of Science, Math, and Reading.

YellowcvrOur opening story, The Great Yellowstone Fire, by Carole G. Vogel and Kathryn A. Goldner, is of particular interest to us, as we share the distinction and privilege of holding a small portion of Yellowstone National Park within our state’s border.  Combine this with the fact that Idaho plays host to a fair share of the West’s summer wildfires, and one can easily see the relevance of fire ecology awareness for my students.

We began our explorations with some pre-reading activities to build background and activate prior knowledge.  The Mystery Tree investigation allowed my students to become acquainted with many of the tree species that inhabit both Yellowstone and forests throughout Idaho that ultimately are affected by wildfires.  Students were involved in science and math skills such as measurement, making observations, recording facts, interpreting data, and drawing conclusions based on the gathered data.

As an introduction to the fire triangle, students participated in a little gumdrop geometry where they discovered the three-legged triangle is the strongest shape.  The knowledge gained from this exploration led us into a discussion of how fire requires three basic elements: fuel, oxygen, and heat to sustain itself.  Like a triangle, if one of the “legs” is removed, the fire will collapse and go out.  In order to prove this fact; we ventured into our first live fire experiment by testing the strength of the fire triangle.  Matches were set up in two different positions, one pointing up and one down.  After observing each one burn out, students were challenged to identify which basic element was missing from the fire triangle, causing the fire to go out.  During the experiment, students timed the length of each burn, measured the length of the flame, and determined which direction the heat went.  In addition, students recorded their findings as any good scientist would.  Proving that oxygen is a necessary element required a candle, plate, and jar.  Watching the candle burn uninhibited for awhile helped students see that with an abundant supply of oxygen, the fire will burn on and on.  After placing a jar over the candle, students observed the flame slowly go out, clearly illustrating that without oxygen; a fire will quickly die. It would be easy enough to feed these facts to my students with the expectation they will be memorized.  However, by engaging my students in experiments that allow them to observe and interact with real materials increases the likelihood they will remember and understand these important concepts.

Now as we begin our reading of the non-fiction piece, The Great Yellowstone Fire, which describes in vivid detail the events leading up to, during, and after the famous fires of 1988, my students are completely drawn into the story.  Our pre-reading activities have helped to make the story come alive and deepen each studentís understanding of how fire behavior affected one of our country’s most beloved national parks.  The reading material is helping us to see that while fire can have devastating effects, it can also be beneficial in ways we may not have known before.   Students are learning that the charred remains are adding minerals back to the soil.  With the canopy now more open, sunlight can get through to the forest floor, nurturing new plant growth.  Animals, large and small, find it easier to forage for food.

Our post reading activities will include the creation of several matchstick forests.  These live fire demonstrations will help students see first hand how the forest’s density, terrain’s slope, and weather conditions can influence fire behavior.  Each of the previous experiences leading up to this grand finale, should enhance my students’ ability to analyze the outcome of each demonstration.

To further tie all these activities and experiences together, our Meridian School District fourth grade curriculum encourages us to explore the global concepts of change, perspective, properties, and interactions throughout the year.   This highly interactive, integrated unit certainly gives us a wonderful opportunity to jump start our explorations and blaze our way into fourth grade.

Kathy Comstock is a 4th Grade Teacher at Cecil D. Andrus Elementary, Meridian Joint School District #2 in Idaho.

Fire in the Junior High Classroom

by Kris Stone

Junior high students are intrigued by fire and easily engage in learning about wildfires.  I taught a fire ecology unit in eighth grade Earth Science.  Students learned to apply concepts they had learned earlier such as weather, climate, maps, and topography to predicting the behavior of wildfires and prescribed burns.  The unit took about two weeks and included modifications of activities from Project Learning Tree (PLT) and “Wildfires:  Feel the Heat” (produced by Discovery Communications).

Students were introduced to wildfires using the Project Learning Tree Activity titled “I’d Like to Visit a Place Where…”    Students described their favorite recreation place and how they would feel if it was burned by wildfire which was followed by a three-minute National Geographic video clip describing what it is like to fight wildfires.

Next, students completed two activities involving the fire triangle.  The first activity “Living with Fire”  (PLT) was modified to include two demonstrations showing how oxygen affects fire.  The first demonstration involved placing a burning splint placed in a test tube filled with carbon dioxide produced by using baking soda and vinegar.  The splint went out due to the lack of oxygen.  The second demonstration involved placing a glowing splint placed into a test tube filled with oxygen produced by using manganese dioxide and hydrogen peroxide.  The splint burst into flames due to the increase in oxygen.  In another demonstration, students were asked to observed how long it took for three different types of matches to burn and determine how fuels affect burning.  Finally, students observed a candle being put out by water to show how heat affects burning.
After the demonstrations, students were divided into five groups and each group was given the same number of matches but different types of materials to burn.  Each group’s task was to burn as much of the material they could with the matches they had.  Some groups had only large fuels to burn while others had damp or wet materials.  Only one group had materials that burned easily.  At the end of the activity, we discussed how oxygen, heat, and/or fuels affected whether or not the materials they were given burned.

Next, students learned about wildfire behavior by building models of forests using stick matches, clay and cake pans (Wildfire:  Feel the Heat).  Students were divided into teams.  The teams built forests that varied in match density, match size, slope, topography, litter, and moisture.  Each group recorded how long it took for their match forest to burn and noted the percent of matches that burned before the fire when out.  Students then tried to determine the affect of density, slope, topography, and moisture by comparing the burn times of each forest.

In the final activity, students used the interactive “Burning Issues” CD produced by the BLM and Florida State University.  They learned to identify the proper environmental conditions for conducting a prescribed burn; measure and control environmental variables such as time of year, moisture and wind speed in test plots; compare a successful and unsuccessful burns; and describe problems and benefits of prescribed burning.

Students enjoyed learning about fire because they find it fascinating plus they were able to participate in a variety of activities.  I liked this unit because it allowed students to apply some of the concepts they learned previously in Earth Science by participating in activities that grabbed and held their attention!

Kris Stone teaches at Riverglen Junior High in Boise, Idaho. In 2002 she was named Idaho Environmental Education Teacher of the Year by the Idaho Environmental Education Association.