Knowledge is power - education in wood technology

Wood Focus magazine
22 Sep 2012

A thriving UK wood industry is showing cracks at education level. The PIABC’s launch of wood technology qualifications is a welcome step forward. Ledetta Asfa-Wossen puts questions to the panel.

The Panel:

Iain Thew Structural Engineer TFT Woodexperts (IT)

Gervais Sawyer Wood Education Representative and consultant (GS)

Andy Pitman Universities Engagement Manager at TRADA and Chairman of the Wood Technology Society (AP)

How has wood technology education changed over the years and what subject areas will be paramount in the future?

IT: Of increasing importance to the industry now are modified wood and processes and lifecycle assessment of embodied energy in buildings.

GS: The need for knowledge of the basic properties of wood has not changed and yet consultants are often busy dealing with basic problems. Clearly there is less real basic understanding now than there was before. This may be connected to the push for distance learning, which many find very difficult. As regards to higher education in wood, there are now no centres for this in the UK other than at Edinburgh Napier University. Indeed, many courses on design that involve wood, such as furniture, are taught with little or no materials science input.

AP: The fundamentals of wood science remain unchanged and still need to be taught. However, there will be a need to include far more information on environmental merits of wood across its lifecycle, engineering of timber with other products e.g. adhesives and marketing of products.  

What are your thoughts on how the subject of wood should be taught at higher education level?

IT: There are no longer any undergraduate courses in Wood Science but there is still a need in the UK timber industry for people to learn about the fundamental properties of timber. I believe that vocational training for students within industry will lead to more industry input. A concern I have with this approach, however, is that it rarely leads to innovations, so there is also a need for more postgraduate education courses.

GS: We have a healthy UK manufacturing industry associated with wood, despite being major importers. The problem for the industry is that productivity is very high and not enough candidates can be made available in any one region to make the provision of courses economically viable. Many specialists are being sourced from other EU countries where training is available. With regards to how it should be taught, I feel that distance learning may be too challenging for many, who will then drop out. There is really no substitute for being fronted by somebody who is really enthusiastic about the subject. Perhaps we should go back to evening classes like the 1950s and 60s?

AP: There is a distinction between forestry, primary wood processing and wood science, as it relates to construction – although typically all students require an understanding across the supply chain to fully understand the merits and limitations of the material. Most large exporting countries have a number of timber related courses. In the UK this is limited, since we now import such a large volume of what we use. There is, however, a need to inform construction courses (eg architects and engineers). One example is Dublin Institute of Technology in Ireland which has just launched an excellent course.

Should the subject of wood science be taught as a broader, all-inclusive subject?

IT: The skills needed to study wood chemistry are quite different to those needed to study forest management, so I do not believe a broader approach to wood education would work.

At degree level it is necessary to keep forestry and timber-related courses as distinct entities since they are different professions. I do, however, think the extension system in the US works well – for example university professors working with local foresters, or wood researchers with the construction industry to evaluate and test products. Similarly, where students get one-year work placements this can help them to understand the needs of industry and do something of benefit to all parties in a final year thesis.

What revisions could be made to current wood education progra mmes? And, how does the UK compare on a global level?

IT: While there is obviously a need for more education in wood science, I also think that the timber industry needs to be more proactive in promoting itself to related industries, such as civil engineering, architecture and materials science. Most undergraduate courses in these related subjects have little content on timber and this ignorance of the material in turn makes people wary of using or specifying it. The timber industry needs to educate this wider community in order to expand and diversify.

GS: There should be some government intervention to prevent institutions from competing for a limited supply of candidates, the result of which is that nobody has economically viable numbers. South Africa is a good example, see International Wood Products Journal Vol 1 No 1 2010 P. Evans where the government recognised the importance of wood to the national economy and restricted wood education to two institutions that are fully funded. They then contracted the University of British Columbia, Canada, to manage the curriculum.

AP: Most forestry education relates to practices in countries where courses are taught, which is useful since the practical elements are more relevant to students. There is one timber engineering course in the UK at Napier, which covers specifics for timber product engineering. Other engineering and architectural courses have little to deliver on wood compared to competing structural materials, largely because the UK timber industry is relatively poor compared to these material sectors. TRADA’s Universities programme aims to provide materials on timber to support training of architects and engineers in the UK. However, compared to mainland Europe, New Zealand, Australia and the USA, wood science education is limited since the forest industry was not perceived as a sufficiently important part of our economy. However, the increase in volumes of homegrown timber available, and current interest in green building and the role timber can play offer new potential.

Do you think the wood industry is perceived as an attractive profession to enter? If noT, how can this improve?

IT: I am not sure that many people consider the wood sciences to be a profession. Better public awareness through the increasing use of timber in buildings and bridges would be a good start. The timber industry also needs to put more value on education, knowledge and the understanding of timber as a material.

GS: In my experience of visiting schools, the wood industry in the UK is totally invisible. They have no concept of what a huge industry it is. That said, those that do get into wood tend to stay with it for life, so it must have some attraction.

AP: The best way we can overcome this is to use case studies of those working with wood in various roles that are not just exclusive to the timber industry.

What advances have been made in timber education?

IT: The introduction of the PIABC Level 2 Award in Timber and Panel Products and their Uses (QCF) will hopefully encourage a better level of knowledge in the merchant sector, but there is a need for much more education at a higher level.

GS: It has taken a while for the various sections of the wood industries to pull together in getting qualifications formally recognised. Now that PIABC and Pro-Skills are launching various qualifications through the Quality Control Framework, there is light at the end of the tunnel. The complexity of the process has yet to be digested by industry and the uptake assessed. I have sympathy for the higher education institutions that used to teach wood machining and similar topics under the auspices of the local authority. Workshop machinery is very expensive and now dates rapidly. No institution is prepared to take the risk of purchasing the hardware without an assured supply of students, and as stated before, there just aren’t the numbers available locally.


Further information

PIABC launch of wood qualifications

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