Students who enroll in Virginia Tech’s newly approved packaging systems and design degree program don’t spend four years just learning to think outside the box — they think about the box itself, as well as the entire packaging system. 

Upon graduation, these students will have opportunities in the diverse packaging industry, which by some measures is the third largest in the world.

The new undergraduate degree program, approved by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia on Jan. 14, teaches students how to design the most economically, aesthetically, environmentally, and technically sound packaging systems for the goods we use.

Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment is the only institution in the state and one of just a handful in the nation to prepare undergraduates with expertise in packaging science and technology. Housed in the Department of Sustainable Biomaterials, the degree gives students a background in “green” packaging to sustainably protect, preserve, and enhance the value of goods.

Since 2004, packaging science has been available as an option under the wood science and forest products major. Elevating the option to degree status in packaging systems and design gives added clout to a program that has a long history of collaboration and support from industry.

“The new degree in packaging systems and design is crucially important because the growth of major packaging companies across the country depends upon a continuous supply of highly trained young packaging professionals,” said Laszlo Horvath, assistant professor of practice and director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design.

“The new degree in packaging systems and design is unduplicated in Virginia and the surrounding states,” emphasized Robert Bush, professor of packaging and forest products marketing. “Students put what they learn into practice by using computer-aided design and manufacturing to develop and produce a packaging system to meet market and sustainability criteria.”

The packaging industry needs graduates with expertise in package design, marketing, warehousing, distribution, and an understanding of issues involved in the recycling and re-use of packaging materials, all of which are addressed in the new degree program.

Packaging entices customers and provides protection from spoilage, damage, and tampering. With almost a third of municipal waste coming from packaging materials, sustainability is also a driving factor in packaging design.

“Our emphasized, system-based study of packaging is unique among U.S. universities,” explained Young Teck Kim, assistant professor of practice. “We look at different sectors of the industry, production, and technology involved in packaging.

Packaging professionals are in such demand that 98 percent of students in Virginia Tech’s program have found a job within weeks of graduation, Horvath said, with salaries averaging $50,000 to $60,000. Many of them secure jobs well before receiving their diplomas.

Students majoring in packaging systems and design take courses in computer-aided design, material properties, and packaging polymers and processing, among other offerings. The program has a strong focus on hands-on experience, with laboratory time incorporated into most courses. Collaborative team projects are a vital part of learning; small classes allow for extensive interaction among students and with faculty as well.

Students in the program benefit from the presence of Virginia Tech’s Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design, an industry outreach center located in the Brooks Forest Products Center adjacent to campus. The packaging center, which researches the design and performance of packaging systems, has meticulously standardized its testing process to a degree unmatched elsewhere. Each step of the testing process is recorded electronically, and a database of images, graphs, and numeral results is generated.

“Through the leadership of the faculty in our packaging program, it has grown substantially over the last three years,” said Bob Smith, head of the sustainable biomaterials department. “Faculty have partnered with the packaging industry to develop a challenging curriculum that will prepare students to meet our society’s needs for sustainable packaging materials.”

“Students have the opportunity to participate in experiential learning with industry partners and our Center for Packaging and Unit Load Design,” he continued. “Our goal is to produce the best student to meet the packaging industry’s needs and reduce our use of natural resources through innovative new products and designs.”

Students benefit from participation in the student chapters of the Institute of Packaging Professionals and TAPPI (Technical Association of the Pulp and Paper Industry), including package design competitions, attending trade shows, and networking with industry professionals. Virginia Tech students have won national awards in design competitions such as the 48-Hour Repack.

“Packaging has its roots in wood-based fiber materials,” noted Dean Paul Winistorfer, “from pallets used to ship products to corrugated shipping containers and individual product packaging. However, we recognize the growing volume of non-renewable materials and other resources such as water and energy used by the packaging industry.”

“This new degree program reflects a significant strategic action by the college to address such challenges facing the planet,” he continued.Our new degree program will help prepare students to address these issues and advance the science of sustainability, which is the mission of our college.”

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