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Course on fire ecology catches on with second-year students

Students in Dr. Michael Graziano’s fire ecology class have a new perspective on a walk in the woods.

Now these Bridgewater State University students are apt to notice the thickness of bark on trees, the size of downed logs and the depth of leaf cover – things that many of us pass without a thought but that are key indicators of a landscape’s susceptibility to fire.

“It definitely changes how you look at it,” said Samantha Allan, ’21, a special education and psychology major from Saugus. “You’re more aware of your surroundings and where you live and what kind of plants are around you.”

Graziano, an adjunct biological sciences professor, highlighted woodland characteristics on a recent walk along the campus’ Great Hill trails. Students in the second-year seminar staked out plots, took measurements, and recorded observations.

Samantha and her classmates learned how young pine trees act like a ladder, allowing flames to spread from the ground to tree canopies. They also found out that fire is critical for certain plants and animals to survive.  The Venus flytrap plant, for example, thrives in an area of the Southeastern United States that regularly has fires.

“I thought it was important for students to understand not all fires are bad,” Graziano said. “In many cases, they are beneficial and necessary to maintain ecosystems.”

Decades of extinguishing fires contribute to massive blazes like those that plague the American West. But, officials are shifting away from the mentality that all fires are bad, he said.

Graziano hopes students leave class with an understanding of fire’s role, as well as the ability to think critically about topics and seek out multiple perspectives. He sought to attract students from a variety of majors by teaching about a fascinating and accessible topic. Students think he succeeded.

“It’s such a unique class,” said Tyler Davis, ’20, an anthropology major from Douglas. “I’m lucky that I can take it.”

Rachel Kennedy-Curran, ’21, a secondary education major from Hanson, enrolled in the class because the title – “Stop, Drop, Roll: Fire Ecology” – sounded cool. She’s glad she did.

“As the class went on, I found it extremely interesting and eye opening,” she said. “I had no idea how fires are actually very beneficial to ecosystems.”

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