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Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources

OSU igniting the interest of Jenks High School students

STILLWATER, Okla. – Normally, a fire on high school property would result in plenty of screaming and panicked students running for their lives. However, a recent fire at Jenks High School, which was lit by Oklahoma State University personnel, was greeted with “ooooos” and “awwwwws.”

The more urban-than-rural backdrop of Jenks rarely sees fires lit on purpose. Common knowledge tells urbanites fire is always a bad thing. They are unconsciously trained to think this way as they see a news segment or read a headline: “Wildfire ravages neighborhood.”

A partnership between JHS and OSU is attempting to lift that smokescreen.

Ferst2,jpgYears ago, during his daily jog, JHS AP environmental science teacher, Bryan Yockers recalled seeing a video from OSU’s SUNUP discussing the countless benefits of using prescribed fire as a land management tool. This prompted a phone call to John Weir, research associate in OSU’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, and star of the video.

“I was contacted by Bryan more than a year ago, and we set the wheels in motion for this incredibly unique partnership,” Weir said. “This is a one-of-a-kind, first-of-its-kind, anywhere, type of deal.”

JPS has some land just a couple miles off its main campus. This is now the setting for research and observation by the 60 or so AP environmental science students in Yockers’ two classes.

The deal is unique in the sense that a major university is partnering with a local high school, and that fire is involved in such an urban setting. Weir and his team of graduate students and other personnel from the Division of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources conduct the burns and Yockers’ students see what happens before, during and after the fire.

“I was very motivated to develop an outdoor classroom for my classes at Jenks Public School’s Agricultural Research Facility. I wanted a space where students could learn more about ecology, while also developing skills and techniques that are actually used in modern field ecology,” Yockers said. “I thought, ‘If we could use fire as the focal point of the research area, students would be more interested.’ The idea for Jenks FERST (Fire Ecology Research Station for Teaching) was born.”

On the day of the burn, the students, including those from JHS’s sister school in China, armed with little-to-no knowledge of prescribed fire, collected information on weather conditions, and characteristics and consequences of the burn and made predictions for recovery after the burn.

As anticipated, there was a little anxiety leading up to Weir firing up the drip torch and lighting the first plot. But after running through a checklist, ensuring that every safety measure was in place and the fire prescription was just right, the students got to sit back and see how a prescribed burn is conducted.

“I thought it was so cool to see the burn happen in person,” said Madeline Dellinger, student. “I was amazed by how fast the fire spread and how thoroughly we were able to control the burn. It was such a great experience and it helped me understand ever better how the prescribed burns work.”

JPS administrator, Eric VanZee, was in attendance for the burn and was impressed by the whole production.

“The OSU crew was awesome. They explained all the factors that go into determining the safety of the burn,” he said. “Interacting with the representatives from OSU helped me to further understand the role fire has traditionally and naturally played as a part of a healthy native ecosystem in Oklahoma. I will definitely remember it for the rest of my life.”

With the burning portion of the students’ research complete for the calendar year, it is on to the observation portion of the project. Students will visit the burn site once every couple weeks to monitor forage quality, invasive versus native species, habitat quality, soil chemistry and much more.

OSU is playing another role in this project, as soil samples are being sent to OSU’s Soil, Water and Forage Analytical Laboratory.

“We’re basically looking at the impact of burning management on soil and forage quality,” said Brian Arnall, associate professor in OSU’s Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. “More importantly though, the students are learning hands on science and research.”

This outdoor classroom approach is getting prescribed fire in the hands of students and people who would never have had this opportunity if it weren’t for FERST.

“A lot of people have a real terror of fire. They never look at it as doing a controlled burn to protect us from wildfire,” said Bruce Peverley, Tulsa County Extension agriculture educator. “We need to take this to more people so they can get an appreciation of what we can do through prescribed fire. It’s great to expose those kids.”

Weir and his crew will revisit the plot and conduct some more fires in February or March, and plan on continuing this partnership far into the future. Until then, the students will take note of the benefits surrounding prescribed burning.

“Besides learning about numerous aspects of ecology, students will develop a better understanding of Oklahoma’s native ecosystems and the role that fire plays in maintaining the health of such systems,” Yockers said. “I’m hoping that as these high school students become landowners, homeowners, employees, business owners, policy makers, etc., they will remember that fire is a natural part of Oklahoma’s ecosystems.”

The students are already losing some of that original fear of fire, after witnessing just one prescribed burn.

“Before the burn started, I was a bit nervous and I was thinking ‘what if something went wrong,’ but after seeing how careful and calm they were, I was able to enjoy it without worries,” said JPS student, Lun Ciang. “I would definitely remember this prescribed burn later in life because it was something that I’ve never experienced before and never thought I would get the change to experience. But, I did.”

Hopefully, this partnership will lessen some of the negative thoughts about fire, despite the ultra-successful Smokey the Bear campaigns.

“Whenever it comes into the city is when it gets scary and shows up on the news. These are all urban kids. The biggest thing we’re doing is educate urban people about fire first-hand,” said Weir. “Whenever someone does talk about fire, they’re going to say, ‘no, that’s not right, fire is good. We learned about that in high school,’ when all the messages they’ve ever gotten about fire are bad.”


Sean Hubbard
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
157 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-4490
Fax: 405-744-5739

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078

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