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Climate & Energy
Takeaways from the UC-Berkeley Summit on Forest Science Education
By Joseph M. Smith, Managing Editor, The Forestry Source

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Forestry Program in the College of Natural Resources at the University of California–Berkeley. As part of its centennial celebration, the college hosted the North American Summit on Forest Science Education May 7–9. The three-day event brought together employers, students, and university faculty from the United States, Canada, and across the globe to produce recommendations on eight themes in forest science and forestry education.

Ultimately, summit organizers hope the recommendations will provide input to the forestry accreditation process, help guide the development of university curriculum, and be used to critically evaluate the role of education in forestland stewardship.

SAF director of science and education Carol Redelsheimer leads a working group discussion on the role of accreditation in forestry education.“There are a lot of serious challenges and issues, and we’ve brought you all here and given you a venue from which to produce some recommendations on forestry and forest science education—the direction it should take,” said Keith Gilless, dean of Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, during an address at the start of the summit. “Let’s figure out how to have a renaissance in the field, to produce students in larger numbers, with more diverse demographics that can think broadly and apply knowledge across disciplines and in a variety of cultural contexts. It’s a global environment—we have to figure out how our efforts play into that global environment and the political process.”

To produce those recommendations, summit attendees were divided into working groups focused on one of the eight themes—curricula (particularly the relationship among forestry, environmental science, and natural resources management); distance learning and new educational models; professional master’s programs; the role of professional accreditation; employment trends in forestry; forest science in US research universities; opportunities for international programs; and diversifying student demographics. The groups were tasked with developing suggestions and action items that could serve as the basis for ongoing discussions. [View the questions considered by the working groups and their recommendations here.]

The goal, said Gilless, was to produce a tangible product that would be of use to the forestry community at large.

“We thought, ‘If we’re going to do this, and bring together some real thought leaders that represented the whole North American forestry scene, along with some input from outside the North American context, how would we structure it so that the discussion would have some legs?’ That was where we started thinking make it a working meeting; try and capture these thoughts in a form that would be useful to people in the community afterward,” he said. “Right from the onset, our real hope was to do something like a special issue of the Journal of Forestry, which would capture what were, in essence, white papers on the key issues.”

However, before the working groups were convened, attendees heard from Al Sample, president of the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, and Maureen McDonough, professor of forest sociology and social forestry at Michigan State University, who presented the preliminary results of the institute’s 2014 draft survey, “The Promise and Performance of Forestry Education in the United States: Results of a Survey of Forestry Employers, Graduates, and Educators.”

A revision of the institute’s 1998 survey of forestry employers and graduates, which was undertaken to assess how well academic programs were preparing new professionals, the 2014 survey aimed to update and expand the forestry community’s understanding of the strength and weaknesses of current forestry education. It was distributed to a wider population than the 1998 survey (i.e., faculty members as well as employers and students), and included additional questions regarding diversity and new skills.

Among the take-home messages of the survey, said McDonough, is the importance of human dimensions skills in the workplace.

“Human dimensions and professional skills—our students aren’t getting trained in them. As Steve Bullard said, we’ve known that since 1914 and we keep talking about it, but we’re not doing anything about it,” she said. “The other thing for me is this whole diversity issue. If we’re really going to move forward, at some point we have to get out there and figure out why we’re not connecting with diverse populations.”

Sample cited the role the survey’s findings could play in helping educators develop the forestry programs of the future.

University of California–Berkeley College of Natural Resources dean Keith Gilless“There is a tendency for things like this to just look at a current snapshot. If you look at what the results of this are supposed to be, it’s supposed to be about reviewing and updating curricula and about training students with different competencies going forward, so it has to be much more future focused,” he said. “The comment made [during the question-and-answer session after his presentation] about talking to students when they’re thinking about going into a forestry program or when they’ve just entered is really good, because they are the ones who are really in tune with what they want to do, where the opportunities are in the field, and whether they’re in the environmental sciences, or more on the forestry or natural resources side of things. That’s going to be a much better guide to faculty as they think about [developing programs].”

Strategically placed in the summit’s agenda, the presentation of the Pinchot survey’s findings was to provide context for the working-group discussions, each of which had a unique set of questions (see page 5) to address. However, the next morning, when the discussion leaders presented their group’s recommendations, the interconnectedness of the eight themes became apparent. For example, the group focused on professional master’s degree programs discussed the implications and pros and cons of distance learning. The group focused on employment trends discussed the attributes that make forestry distinct from natural resources and other related disciplines. The group focused on international programs discussed the effects of curriculum requirements on opportunities for international study. And the group focused on forest science at research universities discussed the importance of collaborating with related disciplines whose work contributes to the field.

Carol Redelsheimer, SAF’s director of science and education and chair of the summit’s working group on accreditation, suggested that these linkages highlighted the need and willingness for collaboration within the forestry education community.

“It’s very encouraging to me to know that those linkages are there and that we can all work together to bring positive results,” she said. “People are very engaged and those linkages are real, and I think we’re doing a very good job of challenging ourselves to be honest in our assessment of what we’re doing.”

Others, such as Hal Salwasser, chair of the forest science in research institutions group, suggested that the interplay of these themes could help forestry better represent itself to the public.

“I think there is a terrific opportunity to begin rebranding what we’re up to by creating a new vocabulary and emphasizing the diversity of things that we do and that we aspire to do,” he said.

Although not a stated goal of the summit, it was clear that the idea of “rebranding” forestry, both as a way of attracting a greater number and more diverse population of students to the field, and to keep pace with society’s changing values, was in the air.
More than 50 people—employers, students, and university faculty from the United States, Canada, and across the globe—took part in the North American Summit on Forest Science Education at UC-Berkeley May 7–9.

“I think the discipline of forestry is up to figuring out how to stay relevant in a rapidly changing economic and social environment, or we wouldn’t have been willing to call a conference like this together,” said Gilless.

Berkeley forestry professor Kevin O’Hara—the man whom Gilless credited with the idea for the summit—agreed, saying that as society changes, so must forestry education.

“I think there is a sense of urgency, at least there should be a sense of urgency, that we need to act and adjust things, and to prepare ourselves for the future of forestry.  So, what I hope we get out of this are some recommendations for how to adjust curricula or how to organize forestry programs at universities, how to use distance learning. All these key questions are central to how we’re going to move forward.”

For more on the North American Summit on Forest Science Education, visit its website: http://ucanr.edu/sites/berkeleysummit.

This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Forestry Source, a newspaper published by the Society of American Foresters. It appears here with the editor’s permission.
Copyright 2014, The Society of American Foresters - www.eforester.org.

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