The Department of Wood Science and Forest Products in the College of Natural Resources at Virginia Tech has initiated a partnership with kindergarten through twelfth grade schools, the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, and Danville Community College to create seamless educational pathways in the areas of wood science, advanced wood manufacturing, and wood design.

Department head Paul Winistorfer, who leads this innovative initiative that now includes many partners in southern Virginia, said: “Essentially, we aspire to create the future wood products workforce at all levels — from the skilled workers needed in advanced manufacturing to the research scientist working on cellulose nanocomposites and new materials — by creating educational pathways that start in [the schools] and lead to our program at Virginia Tech. There is something for everyone in this unique partnership and we are on a path to create a globally recognized center of excellence in the entire state of Virginia.”

“There has never been an initiative like this in the United States that focuses on wood and renewable materials utilization by starting with programs that address the human resource potential at all levels of our educational systems” continued Winistorfer. “The wood and forest products industries are a $27 billion economic contributor to the commonwealth. But, our state, industry, and even consumers face huge global challenges in advanced manufacturing, design, innovation, entrepreneurship, and overall competitiveness. We are a net importer of wood and fiber and now finished products.”

Public schools in the initiative include Halifax County High School, Danville Public Schools, and Pittsylvania County High School. The Southern Virginia Higher Education Center in South Boston, Danville Community College, and Virginia Tech round out the partnering educational institutions.

These partnering institutions have been working on this initiative for two years. Lead by Melanie Stanley, director of academies for Halifax County Schools, Halifax County was recently awarded a Governor’s Career and Technical Academy grant, supported by the Gates Foundation, to create an academy for students in their high school that will include a wood science component.

Central to the initiative was the establishment of the first two WoodLINKS USA sites in Virginia at South Boston and Danville. Winistorfer serves as the current president of the WoodLINKS USA Board of Directors.

WoodLINKS is a grass roots industry-education partnership that brings innovative programming, curriculum guidelines, teacher in-service training, and significant in-kind industry support for official program sites. Begun in 2001 in the United States and adapted from the WoodLINKS Canada model, the program has grown to nearly 140 program sites in 25 states.

Virginia Tech’s department of wood science now has students enrolling from the national WoodLINKS network and coming to Virginia for study in wood science. Sophomore student Dan Roethle (PDF) from Rubicon, Wisconsin, found Virginia Tech’s wood science program through the WoodLINKS network. Today, Roethle is enrolled in the adhesion science degree option within this wood science major, and will be earning a minor in chemistry during his study. The student winner of the Association of Woodworking and Furnishings Suppliers’s fresh wood national design competition will be enrolling in Virginia Tech in the fall for study in wood science, another example of the WoodLINKS connection paying dividends for these students and the department.

Morgan Lumber Company of Red Oak; Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources, and its department of wood science and forest products; the Halifax Educational Foundation; and Danville Community College partnered to support the WoodLINKS licensing fee at these two inaugural sites. Winistorfer says he hopes the partnership can leverage their successes to create 10 to 15 additional sites in Virginia and then work closely with all sites in a statewide initiative that would include summer camp, annual competition, teacher mentoring, and opportunities for collaboration along the educational pathway.

The partnership is hosting a conference on March 13 at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research to benchmark the very best components of the initiative from around the United States and then to adopt by duplication these benchmark programs in Virginia. Last spring, some of the partners traveled to these sites around the nation to see firsthand excellence in action.

The Southern Virginia Forest Products Initiative Conference will conclude with a tour of the new IKEA manufacturing facility in Danville. Winistorfer added: “We have global manufacturing capability moving back into Virginia after the mass exodus of traditional manufacturing to Asia over the past decade. The new IKEA facility is state-of-the art in plant design, equipment, and operation.” Conference attendees span kindergarten through twelfth grade, the state department of education, community colleges, business, industry, Virginia Tech, and others such as community and economic development specialists. The program is attracting interest from surrounding states. Over 130 people are registered for the conference.

The partnership is hard at work on curriculum, articulation among partnering institutions, facilities, equipment, faculty, and student recruitment and awareness. “This is a long term investment of human capital among partners. We believe we can impact the future of our state, our natural resources, the consumer marketplace, and most importantly our human resource through this initiative,” stressed Winistorfer.

The department of wood science and forest products in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources is the leading program in North America engaged in wood and renewable materials utilization. The faculty focus is on the science and business of wood and renewable materials utilization through learning, discovery, and engagement. The department is home to the Center for Forest Products Marketing and Management, the Center for Unit Load Design, the Wood-Based Composites Center, the Sustainable Engineered Materials Institute, and the award-winning Wood Magic Show for fourth and fifth grade children and their teachers.

Through cooperation with the department of marketing in the Pamplin College of Business, the department co-directs the Alfred P. Sloan Forest Industries Center. The department is an active participant in the renewable materials research initiative in the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. Students learn from the leading wood and renewable materials scientists in the world, who bring the latest science and application of principles to the classroom.

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