UL Xplorlabs® Fire Forensics: A real STEM experience

Megan O’Keeffe is an 8th grade physical science teacher and STEM teacher leader in Cobb County, Georgia. Megan has taught science and mathematics for 9 years and spends much of her time trying to create hands-on, real-world experiences for students.

As a teacher leader at my school I am afforded a lot of opportunities to attend professional development on STEM resources. These opportunities are always rejuvenating and a great way to get excited about trying new things in the classroom, but they are rarely programs that I could implement immediately with fidelity. This is why the UL Xplorlabs Fire Forensics training was so exciting to me. In the first hour of the training I learned about pyrolysis: the chemical reaction where heat breaks down solids into fuel gases which can mix with oxygen in the air to ignite in the chemical reaction we recognize as fire. It’s not just a vocabulary word, but a passage to understanding physical and chemical changes, types of chemical reactions, and forms of heat transfer with just one new word and an exciting phenomenon. Since gas is what burns in a fire, you can actually light an extinguished candle from the resulting stream of smoke. When students blow out a candle flame, a stream of unburned fuel gases will rise from the wick, if conditions are right the smoke will ignite and carry the flame back down to the wick. That is, the fuel that has undergone pyrolysis will light rather than the candle itself! Talk about a phenomenon that gets kids engaged in wanting to know “why!”

As my home state of Georgia transitions to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), there is emphasis on redesigning our instruction to meet the three dimensions (3D) and use phenomena to jump start learning. The Xplorlabs modules present a rare opportunity to support 3D instruction, investigation of phenomena and STEM applications all in one, well-designed, FREE module.

When I implemented the program in my classroom, I opened with the phenomena of pyrolysis that hooked me, and the engagement was immediate. Students were genuinely excited that I was allowing them to light a candle and when they saw a “new” trick from such a common experience they were craving more. We used this as a launching point for the first section of the module called The Investigators Academy: What is fire, as well as a claims, evidence, and reasoning (C.E.R) assignment on whether fire is a physical or chemical change.

Each section in the Fire Forensics module is short, visually appealing, interactive, and focuses on the enduring understandings of fire forensics. By keeping the information brief in each section, it allows you to focus on the obvious connections between fire forensics and standards without getting so technical that it’s overwhelming.  If students crave more, which all of mine did, there is a “Takeaway” tab in each section of the Investigators Academy that elaborates on the basic concepts. After this first day, students had seen so much evidence in the Module that they scoffed at the ease in which they could answer my question: “is fire a physical or chemical change?” Even better, they easily incorporated evidence from the hands-on labs, information in the module and classrooms resources.

During the study of fire forensics students commented on how they couldn’t believe I was letting them, “play with fire” or how they liked the different activities, and most excitingly they had questions! The classroom activities were efficient and engaging; additionally, students were eager to continue the digital module. I often had to stop students from moving ahead, so on the day we completed the entire module, they were stoked!

All the sections in the Fire Forensics module are geared toward preparing students to identify the cause of a fire. At the conclusion, they investigate the aftermath of a kitchen fire in a realistic, responsive animation. I hardly had to monitor this work time for students because they were so engaged. They often erupted into arguments about the cause of the fire or frantic pleas for their peers to reveal where they had found additional fire forensic evidence. It was great! The deliverable was for students to make a C.E.R formatted claim about what started the kitchen fire. They had the opportunity to defend their claims to a Cobb County Fire investigator, who visited to share actual job experience and add authenticity to the assignment.

As one of the proof-of-concept teachers for the UL Xplorlabs Fire Forensics program in our district, I was able to help shape the way it is implemented in Cobb County middle schools. I value my own time and the time of fellow teachers, so authenticity and content are important. I think that is why the way we’ve implemented the program in Cobb is so valuable and unique.

During the three to five-day study of fire forensics teachers weave digital content from the module with their own standards-based materials, hands-on investigation of phenomena included in UL’s teacher materials, and visits from the Cobb County Fire personnel. This model for using the Xplorlabs Fire Forensics module is permeating throughout our district and has grown from two to five proof-of-concept schools to teachers busting down our door to get the resources because they can see the authenticity of such a great STEM resource. That old saying about, “if you build it they will come…” well UL has built a comprehensive, authentic, multifaceted, STEM resource and the students, teachers, and firefighters of Cobb County are ready to partner in raising educated, work-ready citizens!

Read more about Cobb County’s unique partnership with fire investigators.