Into the woods: Forestry curriculum provides immersive experience
The College of Natural Resources and Environment prepares students for a future in forestry and environmental conservation.
A forestry student in the College of Natural Resources and Environment held a clinometer to her eye and then tilted her head upward, trying to align a small line in the periphery of her vision with the top of a loblolly pine tree. Next to her, a student minoring in wildland fire ecology conducted a fuel load analysis of surrounding brush to determine the risks of fire on the landscape. Further off in the woods, small propellers hummed to life, and then a drone rose above the tree canopy to view the landscape from above.
This moment is the beating heart of the education that students receive in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation. It’s where traditional, hands-on skills and the fundamentals of forestry science merge with new technologies in an experiential learning environment.
And it’s how, nearly 100 years after the first Hokie forestry student walked the hills of Southwest Virginia, students of today are mastering the knowledge and applied skills necessary to care for the forest landscapes of Virginia and beyond.
A core curriculum leads to field experiences
“I think the first step is to just get them out into the woods,” said Assistant Professor Patrick Corey Green. “It’s something we emphasize right from the start. If we get them into the woods, they’re going to learn something.”
Those initial forays into the woods occur in tandem with a rigorous academic curriculum rooted in the fundamentals of forestry and environmental science. Students complete challenging coursework and lab experiences in forest biology, resource utilization, silviculture, field techniques, and dendrology.
The aim is to provide students with a critical knowledge base that prepares them for the real-world challenges of conserving, managing, and utilizing rural and urban forest resources and ecosystem services.
"There’s a fair amount of essential skills and knowledge that our students need to know," said Green, who teaches forest biometrics and the use of remote sensing technology in forestry. “Building from their first experiences in a forest, students begin the process of quantifying what they’re seeing when they step into a forest and can start to derive some of the key information a forester needs to consider.”
A critical early experience for forestry students is the intensive Field Experiences in Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation course, which has taken the place of the "spring camp" remembered with fondness by generations of Virginia Tech foresters.
Although students no longer bunk out, the field experience remains the place where students learn the techniques and skills that foresters and conservationists have been practicing – and expanding upon – for decades.
“Let me give you an idea of what we did this past year,” said Professor Mike Aust, who can share knowledge about a forest almost as fast as he can walk through the woods. “The first week was first aid and CPR training. Then we moved on into exercises and skills focused on orienteering and navigating through the field. We expand from there to do land surveying, where students use GPS units to create stand maps. After that we had intensive exercises on inventories for pine and hardwood trees, for pulp and saw timber, for regeneration, and for carbon sequestration.”
That’s not all. Students in the course – which meets for two afternoons a week through the semester – visited active logging sites, attended prescribed forest burns, visited clear-cuts and shelter woods, did exercises on best practices in forest management, and conducted water and soil quality testing. They even counted macroinvertebrates in streams, a critical barometer of water system health.
“Shifting to a semester-long course has increased the time our students spend in the field, reduced their costs, and made it easier for transfer students to come into the college," Aust said. “And getting them out on days when the temperature is zero and the wind can blow your hardhat off is another benefit. Blacksburg in February is a whole lot tougher than April in Appomattox.”
Internships: Where learning connects with the real world
Another reason to shift the field experience course to a student’s second year was that taking the course prepares students with skills needed to secure critical internships during the summer months.
“Within forestry, students may find themselves interested in a career around procurement, in state or federal agency work, in private consulting, or in any other aspect to the field,” said John Freeborn, director of employee relations for the college. “By engaging in an internship, students get to experience a sector of the industry first-hand, learning about the day-to-day work, the employer, and the broader marketplace.”
This summer, students in the college are interning as wildland firefighters in North Dakota, as youth corps crew leaders and forest technicians in state and national parks, as fiber supply interns for large corporations, and as arborists in urban communities.
To accelerate access to internships, Freeborn has spearheaded a new jobs and opportunities board, where companies, federal partners, and private organizations can post internship and job opportunities across all four departments in the college. Students can search directly for hands-on experiences in the forestry and environmental conservation fields.
“Internships are a critical first step in building our student’s professional networks and strengthening their resumes with impressive experience in the field,” Freeborn said. “We find that 70 percent of our interns receive a job offer from their employer after the successful completion of an internships. Many of our seniors in these fields are starting their senior years with job offers already in hand.”
Putting it all together in a capstone experience
A final piece to the educational experience of forestry students is the Integrated Forest Management Practicum, a capstone course during their final spring semester where students work with forest landowners to develop a detailed forest management plan.
“The whole idea of the course is that students will meet with the landowner to figure out what the landowner’s objectives are for managing their forest,” said Associate Professor Scott Barrett. “Then they plan and conduct an inventory of the forest, measuring the trees and other resources that exist. From that, they develop and present a management plan for how to best meet the objectives of the landowner.
“It can be very complex, as there are often a lot of moving parts to consider and a lot of options on how they can manage the land,” said Barrett, a specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the coordinator of the Virginia SHARP Logger training program. “One of the keys of success is just coming up with something that makes reasonable sense given the biological and economic limitations of the resources they’re working with.”
Students in the practicum work in small teams to complete their management plans. In past semesters, forestry majors have completed management plans for Hokie Athletics Director Whit Babcock’s 170-acre family estate, national forest land near Blacksburg, the Virginia Highland Haven Airstream Park in Floyd, and the Reynolds Homestead in Patrick County.
“I’ve had many students come back and tell me that this experience was the place where the learning started to make sense,” said Barrett, who has coordinated an annual tour of forestry business in the region for students in their junior year. “You can see that it’s a growing experience for them, a chance for them to really feel what it’s like to work as a professional forester.”
Foresters trained and educated at Virginia Tech will play a critical role in shaping the future of the Virginia’s forestry industry, a key economic driver that contributed $23.6 billion in revenue to the state in 2021, according to a recent economic survey.
“The forests of Virginia are a treasure to the commonwealth, covering two-thirds of the landscape and providing a range of environmental, social, and economic benefits,” said Paul Winistorfer, dean of the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “We’re preparing the next generation of foresters and environmental conservationists to steward our forest resources into the next century.”