Fiery partnership brings prescribed burning to urban students
When a science teacher gets excited about something, big things can happen.
That was the case at Jenks High School in Jenks, Oklahoma, where advanced placement environmental science teacher Bryan Yockers had a fiery idea.
He wanted to get students out of the classroom and on a long-term study site to help apply what they were learning in the classroom.
Yockers isn’t new to agriculture and prescribed burning. His family has a farm in Cloud County, Kansas, and has had a really good relationship with the people leasing the farm over the years. To keep current with what was going on in the agricultural realm, he started watching the SunUP television program produced by Oklahoma State University from time to time. One morning he happened to watch a segment with OSU fire ecologist John Weir.
“That was back in the spring of 2015,” Yockers said.
He was later able to connect with Weir and invited him to come speak to his class. This invitation led them to strike an unusual deal.
“We went out and took a look at the ag land that the school has,” Yockers said. “He went out, and didn’t see a problem with burning there.”
Yockers was able to secure permission from the school district. He initially figured he’d get a negative response.
“The biggest obstacle I had, obviously, was burning on the school property,” Yockers said.
The facilities director, who also had an ag background and attended OSU, became an ally.
“That was probably the key thing right there was that the facilities director was OK with it,” he said.
So the Jenks Fire Ecology Research Station for Teaching or Jenks FERST was born.
Currently, Yockers has 10th through 12th graders in his classes. A middle school teacher in the district has also utilized the station for her class. Jenks is primarily an urban area near Tulsa, Oklahoma, and for some of the students being out in the grass was a big change.
“I force them to go out,” Yockers said. “They always enjoy going, but the thing that’s so interesting about this is—I call them urbanites—and get them out of their comfort zone. Just to go out and walk around in the grass is really an adventure for some of these kids.”
Class time primarily focuses on the very broad subject of ecology and how fire is part of it.
“We could go out and be doing the same thing on a piece of land here on the central campus,” he said. “But the fire is the hook.”
Although the students don’t get to do the actual burning, it still gets their attention to watch the OSU fire ecology students do the work. Weir’s students come do the burns and present information to the classes as part of their own course. But the high school students remain interested.
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“They’re just very interested spectators,” Yockers said.
They do work other than burning when they’re out at FERST. Students collect soil samples and dive into soil chemistry a little bit.
“We look at the bio diversity of the plants that are present,” he said. “We do some small mammal trapping, maybe some netting of insects.”
But the big thing for Yockers is seeing this as a long-term project to improve the land. It is a reclaimed farm with a number of invasive species like Johnson grass.
Since there’s no cattle to graze the invasive species, they’ve started to spray some herbicides. Yockers was able to get a small grant from the Invasive Plant Council of Oklahoma for a backpack sprayer and provide some oversight for spraying.
“From that, they learned a little bit from field technique and sampling protocols,” Yockers said. “That’s kind of the main reasons they’re out there regardless, but then you throw in the fire that really gets their attention.”
It’s certainly gotten and kept Weir’s attention.
“That’s a great part of it—being able to interact with students and watch them be introduced to fire,” Weir said. “The other good thing about it that I really liked—it’s an urban school.”
Weir’s been told it should be done at a rural school, but he believes it wouldn’t have much of an impact on students who are already familiar with prescribed burning and fire.
“They’ve seen fire,” Weir said. “These folks they don’t get to see fire. All they ever see about fire is what they see on the news.”
Weir hopes they’re able to change attitudes and viewpoints about fire in the future.
“This is what’s really, to me, one of the most exciting things about that,” he said.
It’s the same for Yockers. He hopes the kids who come from the primarily urban school can learn that fire is not a bad thing.
“There are situations where there is loss of property, there is loss of life. So it is a dangerous thing,” he said.
He believes some of his students some day might be buying property of their own out in the country, and this could help them understand why farmers and ranchers conduct prescribed burning. He hopes this helps bridge the gap between urban and rural.
“I think one of the biggest things is the disconnect that students have, especially in the city and they have a disconnect of how they fit into the natural system,” Yockers said. “Fire is part of the natural systems in this part of the country, and we’re just trying to expose them to that.”
He hopes when students hear about fire on the news they’re able to understand why and how people burn.
“The land will regenerate and the grasses recover,” he said. “So even though they’re short term, impacts that could be rather devastating (help students) understand that as far as that ecosystem is concerned, it will recover.”
Yockers sees the urban population getting larger and larger, and the proportion of people in rural parts of the country don’t have “as loud a voice as it used to have.” He hopes the small introduction his students get to fire is impactful and helps them understand their connection to food production. Judging by their reactions in class, he hopes they’re on the right track.
“I think usually it’s kind of amazed,” he said. “That, first of all, that we’re out there doing it and our big thing we talk about prescribed fire and the responsible approach to the fire when we go out like these dormant season burns.”
When the middle school students visited recently, they made note of only using a gallon of water to manage the prescribed fire they’d created.
“I think for the students to see that was rather impressive,” Yockers said. “So they obviously saw the difference between what we were doing and what a wildfire is.”
Yockers stresses to his class how fuel loads build up and how fire can be used to manage it.
Spreading the word
Yockers has also been able to help build a curriculum. He’s worked to adapt the U.S. Forest Service program FireWorks information and studied to get a better understanding of fire and prescribed burning. His project, Fire in the Cross Timbers, is a work in progress and he’s been able to work with a number of other agencies.
“Those groups realize that the next step is trying to work on the next, younger generation,” Yockers said. “They’re both using the FireWorks as a framework to develop curriculum. For the one with the Great Plains, we’re focusing on the tall grasses. That was called Fire on the Tall Grass Prairie.”
Yockers hopes these will help foster more acceptance by other teachers.
“When I first got into this, I didn’t have any lessons specifically for fire,” he said. “So I’m kind of piecing things together as I go along, and so other educators are a little reluctant sometimes to get involved if you don’t have a product that they can easily kind of integrate into what they’re doing.”
Yockers and other organizers held a fire-educator workshop that allowed participants to get their hands on a torch and do some burning in 2017. The teacher walkout in 2018 prevented a workshop last year, but he’s already planning one for June 2019.
“They had a really great experience. So we’re having our second one this year,” Yockers said.
Yockers hopes Jenks FERST continues to grow over the next few years and becomes more established.
“So it’s something that’s going to be an ongoing thing,” he said. “That hopefully I want it to be a resource that not just Jenks Public Schools is able to take advantage of, but other schools in the district can come from time to time.”
Kylene Scott can be reached at 620-227-1804 or [email protected].