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Idaho students get FIRED UP about science

Ask most people what they remember about high school science, and you’ll hear:

B-O-R-I-N-G.

But not from select students from the Boise and Meridian School Districts in Idaho. The F.I.R.E. UP for Summer class takes students out of the classroom and puts them in the real-world labs of the Idaho foothills and high desert.

Minot State University alumnus Steve DeMers is part of a four-teacher team that works in the program.

"FIRE UP is a Field Inquiry Research Experience for students," DeMers explained. "The goal is to complete local projects that are valued and used by our community."

Started in 2004, the FIRE UP class meets eight hours a day for three weeks. Last summer, 23 16- to 18-year-olds participated in three projects that focused on fuels, fire risk and noxious weeds.

Every year, FIRE UP groups conduct research for various funders, such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through the Department of the Interior, the city of Boise and State Farm Insurance.

"There are multiple tiers to the projects," DeMers said. "We train students on research techniques, teach them how to collect the data, prepare a (GIS software) presentation, and share their findings with funders and community members. The experience sets them apart from their peers."

Last summer, students conducted a fire-wise home survey, which was a collaborative effort between the BLM, Boise Fire Department and State Farm. Students canvassed neighborhoods and surveyed 581 homes in the foothills to assess fire risk in the community.

Another project was a noxious weed assessment of 100 acres around a subdivision in the foothills. Students learned how to identify weeds such as medusahead wild rye, rush skeleton weed and cheat grass — all fire hazards in the Idaho foothills — and then surveyed and photographed 121 plots according to GPS coordinates provided by the BLM. The data will be used in the treatment of the parcel.

"We have aha! moments on a daily basis," DeMers said. "We are not teachers so much as facilitators in the field. We’re spending eight hours a day with students for three weeks — you don’t get to know kids on this level in a classroom. And as data is collected, we learn right along with them."

Often, the BLM and other funders use the data in grant proposals for fuel control funding.

DeMers was always interested in science, even as a kid. During his senior year as a biology education major at MSU, he student taught at Minot High’s Central Campus under Jim Gilbertson and Bucky Anderson and knew he had found his calling.

"I was always interested with the natural world from a biological and natural history standpoint and figured that teaching was an avenue that would let me share my passion with others," DeMers added. "I enjoy it because it’s teaching science how it should be taught. Students are doing work someone else will value and use, and that is important to them."