Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences
Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Students, teachers puzzle out the story behind megafires

Innovative lesson dives into patterns associated with large, damaging fires

Two people standing in burned forest are with a deer in the distance
Two people standing in burned forest are with a deer in the distance
- Jon Griffith

Wildland fires are becoming bigger and more frequent in the United States, impacting more people and communities than ever before. After a devastating 2020 Colorado wildfire season, which included the three largest-recorded fires in state history, educators from CIRES and CU Boulder collaborated with teachers and former CIRES scientist and fire ecology expert Natasha Stavros to develop an innovative lesson that addresses the science behind large, destructive fires. Now, this “Data Puzzle” is helping students across the country dive deeper into the causes and patterns associated with megafires in the western United States.

“We want to bring contemporary science stories into classrooms,” said Jon Griffith, a CIRES Education and Outreach associate and co-creator of Data Puzzles. “Megafires have been in the news a lot, and we saw an opportunity to connect students to the phenomena and inspire them to identify mitigation strategies.”

Produced by CIRES Education & Outreach, Data Puzzles combine classroom-friendly scientific datasets and the Ambitious Science Teaching instructional framework, a National Science Foundation initiative, which leverages students’ existing knowledge and encourages ongoing changes in thinking. 

“[Ambitious Science Teaching] is a framework for organizing the complex work that science teachers do daily, weekly, monthly, and annually to support science learning experiences that are deeply connected to young people’s questions, ideas, and interests,” said Melissa Braaten, assistant professor of Education at CU Boulder and Ambitious Science Teaching coauthor.

Each Data Puzzle peels back the layers of a different environmental concept—from warming in the Arctic to drought in the Colorado River Basin. In communities that have experienced or are at risk for wildfires, the megafire lesson provides an opportunity for teachers and students to engage with data relevant to their daily lives.

“I was very excited to be able to work with authentic data around the topic of wildfires, as they have had a profound impact in my region and my community, including students,” said Sandy Smith, a science teacher at Falcon Homeschool Academic Program in Colorado Springs. Smith was one of the three teachers who helped develop and test the megafires lesson in their classrooms.

To develop the megafires Data Puzzle, the education team from CIRES and CU Boulder and the three teachers joined forces with Stavros, who guided the team as they explored potential options for a wildfire-focused lesson plan and provided the data for the team’s final selection—megafire frequency over time.

“I really liked knowing that my science could help shape how the next generation thinks about climate and wildfire,” Stavros said. “It was fun to think about how to boil down the complexity of the topic into something that students of variable ages could understand.”

The megafires Data Puzzle asks, “How and why has the number of megafires changed over time?” and challenges students to organize new information and evidence into an explanatory model addressing the question. To create their model, students read background information, participate in discussions, and complete activities using the megafire dataset. 

Data puzzles example sheet

Data Puzzles Model

An explanatary model from the megafires data puzzle. Credit: Jon Griffith/CIRES

“My middle school Earth science students were fascinated by the topic,” Smith said. “They had to come up with a model and revise that model. It was challenging, but ultimately very satisfying when they found that they could do it.”

Materials for the megafires Data Puzzle, including a teacher guide, slide deck, and student worksheet, are free and available online. In summer 2023, Griffith and Stavros will lead a free teacher workshop about the megafires lesson. And soon, a new virtual reality tour of burn areas in Rocky Mountain National Park will will take students “into the field” and help guide them through the lesson exploring impacts of wildfire on the environment.

“My hope is that Data Puzzle resources inspire curiosity and hope in students, and that the framework acts as a road map for teachers and scientists to help students make sense of exciting science phenomena,” said Griffith.

Summer 2023 Teacher Workshop—Megafires: Rare Occurrences or the New Normal? 

On July 18, 2023 from 9 am - 1 pm MT, join developer Jon Griffith and fire ecologist Dr. Natasha Stavros, as they lead you through Megafires: Rare Occurrences or the New Normal?, a 2-3 day Middle School/High School lesson in which students analyze megafire frequency data to explain how and why the number of megafires has changed over time. 


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