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Fired Up Over Math: Studying Wildfires from Space

Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, National Aeronautical Space Administration

Students learn how scientists assess wildfires using remote sensing, then use some of the same techniques to solve grade-level appropriate math problems.

This activity takes one 30-60 minute class period

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

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Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Download images ahead of lesson for classroom projection as instructional support may be needed for student understanding of some images.
  • Note some students may be sensitive to this subject due to personal experience or knowing others affected by wildfires.
  • Instructors may want to find other descriptions of a burn scar and the remote sensing technology that is linked from the introduction. While useful, those links are not as helpful for defining those topics and instruments.

About the Science

  • In this activity, students learn how scientists assess wildfire extent and severity using remote sensing techniques, then use similar techniques to solve math problems.
  • The background information briefly describes the costs of wildland fire (economic, ecological) and links increasing fire frequency to climate change.
  • It goes into detail about how Earth observations are used to study wildland fire, with specific examples that are then used in the worksheet.
  • All data and materials are online; the source is NASA and/or JPL-Caltech, a highly credible source.
  • Comment Summary from Expert scientist:
    Scientific strengths: Compelling topic. Engaging data and pictures.
    Suggestions: Note that data from remote sensing, observation, and measurement equipment comes from a variety of sources and research institutions. NASA is only one source of these. Some data in this video may be slightly exaggerated e.g. the King fire was unlikely to "threaten Global air quality." It is likely smoke was not measurable in the Southern Hemisphere.

About the Pedagogy

  • This is a worksheet-based activity that includes discussion questions and supplemental materials.
  • Students may work alone or in small groups to analyze satellite photos of fire areas and answer questions on the worksheet provided.
  • The worksheet has progressively more complex questions, to engage a range of ages/grade levels; younger students would only answer the early questions, while older students would finish the entire worksheet.
  • Math connections are made for various grade levels.
  • Assessment strategies may be student response to questions or oral presentations of ideas.
  • The materials include a list of which Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Standards the activity meets.
  • This would likely be an engaging activity: fire is fascinating to many, and this takes an engaging topic and uses it to convey solid scientific information about remote sensing capabilities as well as math problems.
  • The activity would not take much time to prepare - just printing worksheets and preparing the lesson according to the activity guide.
  • Teachers could find more local examples, but this teaches the background concepts.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Some of the worksheet questions for older students do require access to Google Earth to look at specific coordinates in relation to burn maps and burn severity pictures.
  • Printable worksheet includes all required images from NASA or they may be downloaded for projection.
  • The Background information contains a broken link to a paper with supporting information on how fire severity relates to fire intensity. The first two links to maps are also broken, but those images are in the PDF of the activity worksheet. All questions are designed to be used with a computer, but no computer is required for most of the questions: the worksheet does contain all required images.

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