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Yellowstone Fires

Teaching Materials by the Exploring the Environment (more info) Team for NASA's Classroom of the Future - Starting Point page by R.E. Teed (SERC).
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This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Emphasizing an integrated approach to environmental earth science through problem-based learning, the module asks students to assume the role of environmental biologist, and help several government agencies resolve the debate surrounding "let it burn" policies in national parks. The government agencies would like to know whether or not to allow naturally occurring fires in Yellowstone National Park to burn to their natural conclusion. The agencies are particularly interested in student recommendations based on an Earth System Science (ESS) analysis of a fire's impact on the air, land, water, and living things. Many of the pages within the site provide hyperlinked background resources to investigate wildland fire issues in more detail. A glossary, references, related links, and a general description of the problem-based learning model compliment the site.

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Learning Goals

Students will:
  • Develop their own research strategy to answer a specific question put before them.
  • Investigate the problem using a variety of Internet Resources.
  • Look at causes, effects and feedbacks in the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere.
  • Use a Problem Statement to describe the background of the problem and possible solutions.

Context for Use

This was actually written for a graduate course for teachers, but can be used at many levels. As it is student-centered, much of the work can be done out of class, but it will take several days.

Teaching Materials

The Yellowstone Fires ( This site may be offline. ) site includes good starter references for the students and links to more. Students and teachers both will need to carefully examine the Problem-Based Learning Method. Concept Mapping ( This site may be offline. ) will also prove useful. Access to Internet-capable computers will be essential for the students while they do research.

Teaching Notes and Tips

Problem statements are best handled by teams of students who define the research plan together and then split up to have different students research different elements of the problem (assigned roles such as geologist, biologist, hydrologist and atmospheric scientist can help here). The instructor needs to be very clear just how thorough the students should be and needs to examine the students' research plan before they commit time to the research.


Very explicit directions for writing a problem statement are given and this can be developed into a written or presented assignment. The Exploring the Environment Team (working as the ESSEA team) has also written rubrics for Earth System Science Projects for in-service teachers using PBL.
  • The first is the Rubric for an Earth Systems Problem (www.strategies.org/docs/ESSEA_29OCT/hil912/intro/wkBteam.html) for the initial assessment and research plan. The students could turn the first part of the project in to the instructor before beginning serious research. If it contains serious flaws, the instructor can help the student team correct them before serious research efforts start.
  • The rubric for the final paper/presentation will depend on the class, but the Rubric for a Problem Statement (http://www.strategies.org/docs/ESSEA_29OCT/hil912/intro/wkAteam.html) is a good example of a typical approach.

References and Resources

The Modules and Activities link takes the user to a page with links to this and sixteen similar problem-based-learning activities for a variety of grade levels. dealing with topics including the Everglades, the Ozone Hole, and a manned mission to Mars.

PBS has nice virtual tour of the spectacular geological features of Yellowstone Park with a role-playing exercise at The Living Edens: Virtual Yellowstone Tour