A scientist, an artist, and student interns walked into a forest

Alex Rose

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By Gretchen Minekime


When you were in high school science class, was one of your lead instructors a sculptor? Maybe, but you probably didn’t know about it.

Working with teaching artists is one way CU Science Discovery approached its recent ‘Forests and Fire’ field course held at Cal-wood Education Center, located near Jamestown. The course was part of CU Science Discovery’s efforts to foster STEM engagement and career exploration among Colorado high school students. 

“It’s important when working with students who don’t yet identify as scientists to appeal to all their sensibilities. Using art and writing as ways to see the world and document changes are great tools. It helps participants use different parts of their brains,” said CU Science Discovery’s Broader Impact Liaison Alex Rose. 

The university’s Office for Outreach and Engagement provided funding for the field course and connected its Engaged Arts and Humanities Scholar Amy Hoagland—current candidate for a Master of Fine Art in Sculpture—and current Art + Science + Action Partnership member Erin Robertson with CU Science Discovery. 

Hoagland’s involvement was particularly synergistic, because she was already looking for a burn scar where a gathering place could be created for people to reflect about climate change.

“For me, it’s inspiring to see art existing outside of white gallery walls, out in the world,” said Hoagland. “It’s important to bring art to people so that new audiences can come. Combining science and art breaks down barriers and makes it easier to communicate big ideas and create change. The student interns brought such a willing and serious energy. They exceeded my expectations. Plus, for me, this project will inform my thesis.” 

Twelve student interns participated from the University of Colorado’s pre-collegiate programs and Nature Kids Lafayette/Jóvenes de la Naturaleza Lafayette (NKLJNL), a 30-plus-strong collaboration of Colorado environmental education organizations, including Cal-wood Education Center and CU Science Discovery. 

Nature’s Laboratory

Cal-wood Education Center’s 600-acre wildfire scar now serves as a laboratory for researchers from CU Boulder and beyond, as well as a new kind of classroom for Colorado youth and adults—many of whom would not otherwise have access to direct interactions and learning opportunities with Boulder County scientists. 

Hoagland and Cal-Wood Executive Director Rafael Salgado identified nine trees where the 2020 fire started. Those trees were cut at varying heights up to 4-feet. Teen interns studied tree rings to learn about the ages, growth cycles and life events of each tree. They also traced the trees’ rings onto plexiglass and Hoagland digitized the images, which were then transferred to reflective stainless steel plates and installed on the stumps. 

Robertson conducted another workshop where the interns wrote about hopes for themselves, the forest and the planet. Their writings were published in a booklet handed out on Oct. 16 during an educational event memorializing the fire and debuting the art installation. 

“Holding our field course at Cal-Wood gave interns an opportunity to connect how climate change impacts our communities in tangible ways,” said Director of CU Science Discovery Stacey Forsyth. “We want that connection to be both inspiring and empowering. So the experience isn’t just focused on learning about climate change or wildfire, but more importantly how young people can take that knowledge and affect change.” 

Exponential Impacts

“Over the past year, this project has sparked exciting new collaborations,” said Forsyth. “Researchers from CU’s Earth Lab used drones to document the burned area, which not only provided an interesting demonstration for the interns but also produced a dataset that can be used by CU for wildfire research and by Cal-Wood for its own ongoing recovery.”

Angela Meyers, program director for NKLJNL, recognized that the collaboration among so many individuals, community groups and the university has made otherwise unachievable impacts possible. “The challenges of collaboration—and keeping the right who and why front and center—are so worth it.” 

But, the proof shows up in the interns.

“Things like this happen all around us. And the littlest things we can do—like the thousands of seed balls we just threw into the burn area—make a difference,” said intern Geo. “I learned that the forest grows, and it learns. We can help it do that.”