Fire. It is elemental and has fascinated humans for millennia. We have learned to harness it; to cook with it, to warm up by it, and to gather around it to share stories. For the past few weeks, our Keep Austin Beautiful Green Teens have been learning about “primitive” survival skills. They have built shelters using natural materials, practiced orienteering using the landscape and hand-held compasses, and learned about wild edibles growing in Austin’s parks and preserves. However, nothing in the unit has created as much anticipation as fire building.
Energized from a Fire by Friction class offered by Earth Native Wilderness School, our Education Programs Coordinator Alecia shared her fire building skills with her Green Teens at Martin Middle School. She stressed the importance of fire safety, modeled how to make a tinder bundle, and demonstrated how a bow drill uses friction to create fire. That’s right; she taught her youth how to start a fire by rubbing sticks together…sort of.
The bow drill kit is a simple contraption which uses physics, leverage, and friction to create a hot ember which can then be blown into a fire. The bow is a curved stick about 1.5 feet long with a rope attached to it. A spindle is spun by the bow into a carefully prepared base called a fire board. The spinning creates friction, which wears away at the fire board creating dust. As the heated dust accumulates below a notch carefully cut into the fire board, it coagulates into a glowing ember. This tiny “coal” is added to a bundle of dry fluffy material called a tinder bundle. With the right amount of oxygen and patience, the coal ignites the tinder bundle and is used to start a fire.
The students could not wait to get the bow drill in their hands. Initially, each student at Martin Middle School was able to produce a burning ember, but the rainy weather made it difficult to find enough dry tinder. The next week, the Green Teens came prepared! Carlos and Victor gathered dry tinder and arrived with a burning desire to make fire! The photos speak for themselves. Embers, smoke, and flames were all created with time and patience. The boys were so focused on their task that an hour and a half flew by and pleas for more time came as they were cleaning up for the day.
This is experiential S.T.E.M. education at its finest! The youth are learning about the science of friction and combustion, using the bow drill technology (considered “primitive” by some, but completely new to them), discovering the engineering which goes into designing and building the kit, and applying math skill to extrapolate the right amount of pressure needed to produce a coal with the least amount of energy expended. The entire experience is an opportunity to integrate school subjects and life skills. “Hard” sciences are at the core, but they are also learning about history, social studies and language arts. Students left telling stories about their experiences and drawing friends and families into their learning.
The opportunity for them to build fire is not extinguished. The Green Teens will re-ignite during an upcoming spring break camping trip to Palmetto State Park. No lighters for this group; these youth are armed and ready with bow drills and dry tinder. There is nothing like roasting marshmallows and telling stories around a campfire made with hard work, persistence, your hands, and some primitive tools.
Green Teens is a youth environmental education program of Keep Austin Beautiful. Through weekly after-school activities, service projects, and field trips, middle and high school youth are empowered to be active, to identify problems and find solutions, to unplug from technology to be in nature, and to reconnect to the digital world to explore new questions and share their experiences.
Green Teens is made possible thanks to generous contribution from a Dell Powering the Possible grant.