By: Steve Johnson
Among the things to be concerned about these days, Estes Park Middle school students have found a way to take a community concern and turn it into an opportunity to learn, earn, and take action. During two quarters of the school year, students in the Earth Force exploratory class used project-based learning to identify an environmental concern in our community and propose a solution to the issue. After researching issues such as habitat destruction, human - animal interactions, flooding, and fire, the second quarter class went through a decision-making process to carry on the project with a focus on fire issues. The third quarter class put their focus on fire mitigation because it appeared to be a real problem with an attainable solution for Estes Valley residents.
When students heard about the fires in California in the past few years and the increasing growth of large devastating fires in Colorado, they recognized that wildfire has become a threat to most mountain communities. Changing weather patterns, increasing development in forested communities, and the pine beetle invasion of the past two decades all contribute to our concerns. Students discovered there are practices and policies that can be implemented to reduce the risk of wildfire but they require action on the part of land owners.
The Rocky Mountain Environmental Challenge (RMEC) sponsored by “Earth Force” motivates students to follow steps leading to a spring competition between schools for grant funds to implement the desired solutions to the problems identified. The six step “Earth Force” process follows the model designed to have students “develop a project of scope and scale that they can implement and that has a sustainable impact on an environmental issue.” As a part of the class, students were asked to identify who the stakeholders are in the issues identified. Our students researched and spoke with individuals on the issues of fire mitigation, land use, and resource management. Among the people who visited class were Jeffrey Boring with the Estes Valley Land Trust; Fire Chief David Wolf, and inspector Nate Mutzl of the Estes Valley Fire Protection District; Randy Hunt, Community Development Director; Breeyan Edwards, local realtor; and Koren Nydick, RMNP Chief of Resource Stewardship. Students also checked with school officials regarding the issues that might arise if they did fire mitigation work on private property.
Students planned to present to the community the value and importance of having private properties meet “Firewise USA'' standards, by creating games for kids, brochures for adults and models to demonstrate the impact of “Firewise” practices at the Mountain Festival. With the cancelation of many activities this spring, plans needed to be altered and the Rocky Mountain Environmental Challenge Summit went to a virtual format. Prior to the schools going to remote learning, the students were in the process of creating models and activities for the Mountain Festival. Steve Johnson, the classroom teacher, finished the models so the experiment in the Firewise preparation could still be conducted. A North slope densely forested model and a south slope drier sparsely vegetated model with sample Firewise properties on them were created. Earlier this month both models were put to the test. In each case the fire did not burn through the properties that had fire mitigation done around the homes. (see photos).
On April 22nd the winners of the RMEC grant were announced and the 6th grade students from Estes Park Middle school took 2nd place out of nine schools competing for the grant funds. The students were awarded $800.00 for their project and now plan to use those funds to implement their Firewise project this summer. Working in conjunction with the Estes Valley Land trust these students hope to complete fire mitigation work on land trust properties. As the Firewise steps are implemented it is the hope that more and more homeowners will prepare their properties as well.
Students who collaborated to work on the research, model building and project plans for the 2020 Rocky Mountain Environmental Challenge and Mountain Festival were: Mica Bertucci, Neva Case, Alexis Hennig, Jillian Maxwell, Ava Plassmeyer, Dalton Baudino, Claire Cho, Ashtan Coleman, Max Edwards, Taylor Ellis, Courtney Gier, Isaac Hill, James Hocker, Lewis Johnson, Sawyer McDonald, Cooper Mendonca, Claire Phillips, Caleb Summner, and Mia Valentina Dela Rosa. Special assistance was provided by previous RMEC participants including Marshall Erickson, Annie Lewelling, Lexi Richardson, and Kysa Marske. Mr. Johnson and the students wish to thank individuals who shared their knowledge and expertise with us and support our project-based learning.