For Virginia Tech students who study forestry, the outdoors is the classroom.
Piling into university vans and heading out into the woods to study trees, wildflowers, and more is what they do, often several times a week. It’s an essential component of lab instruction for many Virginia Tech faculty in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, including Carolyn Copenheaver, an associate professor who teaches forest ecology.
But because these outdoor labs don’t take place in a traditional classroom, students often let their guards down.

A few years ago, Copenheaver was approached by female students sharing their experiences of harassment in the field.

That’s when she realized that something had to change.
Fast forward a few years, and Copenheaver now is leading a charge to address sexual misconduct and harassment in her courses, which all involve field labs. In the process, she has become an outspoken resource for helping other faculty to maneuver this delicate topic.
In October, Copenheaver, along with three other colleagues, published the results of numerous focus group discussions with faculty at universities across the country. The discussions centered on how to address and prevent sexual harassment in higher education agriculture and natural resources programs with outdoor lab spaces.
The findings, which outline a list of best practices for faculty, were published in the North American College and Teachers of Agriculture journal. The work was funded by a USDA Higher Education Challenge Grant, and Copenheaver said she hopes to apply for another grant to continue this work.
She also has spoken with several professional groups about the work.
For many years, even during her own time in college, Copenheaver said she normalized some of the behavior and language that she heard in her forestry classes. She chalked up the language to the fact that the majority of students in those courses are male and some of the words were spoken as jokes. For example, in some of her classes for forestry majors at Virginia Tech, there may be only one female student among an all-male roster.
Copenheaver herself was one of few females in her master's and doctoral programs, and she now recalls being a victim of sexual harassment. She heard certain language so often that she assumed it was what women had to endure in her field.
“I didn’t even know that’s what it was,” she said.

Carolyn Copenheaver, associate professor, works with students on wildflower identification during a field course. This photo was taken before COVID-19 mask mandates were in place.
Carolyn Copenheaver, associate professor, works with students on wildflower identification during a field course. This photo was taken before COVID-19 mask mandates were in place. Photo by Kris Timney.

Her work over the last few years has opened her eyes to changes that she needs to make to ensure that her students feel secure.
“They [students] know how to behave in a classroom; they’ve been doing it since kindergarten,” Copenheaver said. “But we’re driving to the woods, and people’s informal behavior comes out. It’s my job to police their language, because that’s still part of the class, and I still have to create a safe space for all of my students.”
The focus groups outlined a list of best practices for faculty to address sexual harassment upfront with their students. This includes stating rules in syllabi, bringing up the topic and expectations several times with the class, and establishing a laboratory code of conduct.

Others who worked with Copenheaver for the project include Adam Coates, an assistant professor of forest fire ecology and management at Virginia Tech; Adam Downing, a Virginia Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture, natural resources, and forestry in the Northern District; and Saskia van de Gevel, department chair and professor of geography and planning at Appalachian State University.
After talking with faculty from at least 10 universities, Downing said it was clear that many found it difficult to talk about sexual harassment in front of their students.
“There are words in this realm that people don’t want to say out loud,” he said. “We need to be able to do that to have meaningful conversations. I think just looking for opportunities to have these conversations, not just checking the boxes that ‘I got my Title IX training done,’ would have some good outcomes.”
After hearing from her students, Copenheaver sought help about what she could do and change from Anthony Scott, chief of inclusion and belonging in the Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech.
Scott said that it is essential that faculty address these issues in front of their students and see this as an important teaching opportunity.
“We are supposed to be preparing these students to go out in the world and make a difference,” he said. “We can no longer continue to suggest through our silence that issues of equity and diversity and inclusion and belonging, that these issues aren’t just as important as figuring out a mathematical formula.”
In the fall semester, Copenheaver initiated conversations about sexual harassment with her students and included explicit expectations in her syllabi. She will continue doing this going forward.
Copenheaver’s research into these topics is unique to many agriculture and natural resources programs, said Wendy Fink, who is executive director of the academic programs section, and assistant vice president of food, agriculture, and natural resources at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. Copenheaver presented her work for a subcommittee of the APLU this past summer.
“I think her research is very much needed in the fields of agriculture and natural resources,” Fink said. “Raising awareness on how to prevent sexual harassment or assault, including through bystander training and creating a culture that encourages reporting, remains critical to creating safer working and learning environments for everyone."
Natalie Hedrick, a junior who is majoring in forestry at Virginia Tech, said she appreciates that Copenheaver is talking with her classes about how to treat one another appropriately.

“I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen in every major within colleges,” she said. “It’s better to say it 1,000 times than one. The repetition is key with people our age. Especially when we go out into the field, language does change.”

Carolyn Copenheaver (left), an associate professor at Virginia Tech, has been working for several years to ensure that students feel safe in her courses, which include many outdoor field labs.
Carolyn Copenheaver (left), an associate professor at Virginia Tech, has been working for several years to ensure that students feel safe in her courses, which include many outdoor field labs. Photo by Kris Timney.

Hedrick said she enjoys having professors like Copenheaver in CNRE, who are female and can relate with her. In 2018, Copenheaver received the Society of American Foresters award for outstanding forestry education, the first woman ever to do so. She also received the Virginia Tech Alumni Award for Teaching Excellence in 2020.
Hedrick said Copenheaver helps her students feel that they are a part of a community.

“You don’t feel uncomfortable asking questions,” Hedrick said.
This is the kind of environment that Copenheaver wants to continue to foster - one in which students are not afraid to come to her with any questions or concerns.
“If we’re not comfortable with it, if you have a student who is a victim, they will sense that you are uncomfortable, and they will never come to you,” she said. “My goal is to be clear in my communication about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in my classroom space. And my classroom space extends beyond the four walls where we have lectures. If I’m there, you’re in my class.”

Those in the Virginia Tech community who need assistance or support may contact:

Share this story