• Confluence Lab

Communicating Fire: University of Idaho Project Enhances STEM Learning with Wildfire Stories

Aug. 11, 2020


In an effort to provide Idahoans with a better understanding of wildfire in Idaho, University of Idaho researchers are bringing together the voices of people on the landscape who view fire from a variety of perspectives.


Firefighters use drip torches to start a prescribed burn in the University of Idaho Experimental Forest near Troy, Idaho.
Firefighters use drip torches to start a prescribed burn in the University of Idaho Experimental Forest north of Troy. Photo by Stacy Isenbarger

As part of a recently-funded project of the U of I’s Confluence Lab, “Communicating Fire” will draw from the narrative voices of fire managers, firefighters, fire scientists and people affected by both harmful and helpful wildland fire to provide a rich learning experience and increased participation among students in informal STEM learning in rural Idaho.

Research shows that student learning is enhanced through storytelling, which is often lacking in traditional communication between scientists and the public, said Teresa Cohn, research associate professor at the College of Natural Resources’ McCall Field Campus.

“The American West is rife with personal narratives of evacuation, smoke and disaster. Yet, alongside these deep, dramatic events, fire scientists carry a quieter but no less important message that fire has always been part of the western landscape, and many wildland fires play natural and beneficial roles.”

Comprised of teachers, writers and scientists, the team will build a curriculum that incorporates interviews with “frontliners” who have firsthand experience with wildland fire, including the beneficial use of prescribed fire and the suppression and management of wildfire.

The research team is distinctive because it includes two English faculty, Associate Professor Erin James and Professor Jennifer Ladino, who with Cohn are co-founders of the Confluence Lab. The lab brings together scholars in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and community members to engage environmental issues in Idaho.

The stories that people tell about fire in the western landscape are as diverse as the ecological roles that fire can play, said Leda Kobziar, associate professor at the College of Natural Resources.

“We hope to augment understanding of fire by exploring the power of narrative in communicating the nuances and complexities of fire science.”

The project is exciting because it pairs science with storytelling, James said. “When we listen to stories, we learn what it is like to experience fire first-hand,” she said. The cross-disciplinary research team will provide workshops to train informal STEM educators, pilot summer programs and create a podcast based on their findings.

“Our team will work collaboratively with informal educators based in rural areas of Idaho underrepresented in STEM fields,” Cohn said.

The two-year project was funded to University of Idaho by National Science Foundation under award 2006101. The total project funding is $299,911 of which 100% is the federal share.