Learning with Fire

Every year, my 8th grade students design their own inquiry investigations. This year, they will have the opportunity to run the investigations at home instead of on campus. Though I was hesitant to embrace this change at first, I realized it may open the door to some new options for inquiry. One of those options is the use of fire.

We have experienced forest fires for years near our homes, but this year the fires came much closer than anyone was comfortable with. As a result, forest fires have become a hot topic for inquiry investigations. In many ways I am excited about what students have planned and how interested they are in their projects. In some ways, though, I am nervous and perplexed. For example, in talking to each student about their burgeoning plans, a student told me she was “going to do fire” as her investigation. I responded, “Tell me more.” This 13-year-old told me she just liked fire so she was going to see what happens when she starts one. This was alarming (and a little funny). I obviously prodded a little more and we finally agreed on an investigation that would utilize fires but have a purpose.

Another couple of students wanted to start a fire and then turn on a fan to see where the ash from the fire would go. I shake my head thinking about this, but really am somewhat delighted at the thinking. (We have decided on an alternate procedure). One student is planning to test different fire-resistant materials that are encouraged to be used around your home to prevent the fire from getting too close to your structure. I love this one and am curious to see how he decides to set up the investigation.

Most of the students interested in connecting their inquiries with our forest fires are looking at the effect of the remaining ash on plant growth. There are a variety of ways to set up this study. An interesting learning opportunity associated with this type of investigation is the connection to field burning in agriculture. The students uncovered information about the ash left from fires that surprised them. This surprise (that ash might not be all bad) has motivated them even further to continue to explore.

One important detail to mention – in all cases where students want to investigate fire, I have asked if they have permission from their parents. It is somewhat entertaining to hear their responses. Most have talked to their parents before I even ask, but some seem as if I have caught them red-handed. Just to be safe, I will be sending home parental consent forms for these projects 🙂

If you are interested in connecting forest fires to your content, I encourage you to think about taking a field trip. One of my colleagues set up an amazing full-day field trip for his AP Biology class. They visited sites of past forest fires and sampled the soil, as well as noted the vegetation. The sites varied in elevation as well as time since the last burn. Field trips are challenging, but I love the real-world connection!

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