Most of the traditional wood science programs in the U.S. have recently changed the names of their degree programs, their department names, or both. Departments of "forest products" have become departments of "sustainable biomaterials," "sustainable bioproducts," or perhaps "bioproducts and biosystems engineering." Wood science and wood technology degrees have become degrees in renewable materials and sustainable biomaterials. Some within the industry have been critical of the redesigns, especially when it comes to undergraduate curricula that they perceive to be watered down from the "good old days" when they were students.

What has driven the change? I asked two universities to comment on this. First up, we have a look at the Oregon Experience by Chris Knowles:

At OSU, the primary motivation has been centered on attracting students. At the depth of the Great Recession (the recent one) we dropped to 17 total undergraduate students in our Wood Technology program, which equated to less than two students per faculty member. At that level, the university begins to question the point of maintaining a program at all!

Clearly we needed to do something different, given the changes taking place in our customer base (students), not to mention the pressure coming from the university administration. In a true, market-oriented approach, we went to our customers to learn what they want in a degree and in a career. We conducted focus groups with high school seniors and with current OSU freshmen. The key takeaways we learned in the process were that the impacts of the recession were top-of-mind for many students and each person often knew one or more people who lost their job during the recession. Therefore, the students were looking for an education that would provide them with broad possibilities and flexibility. "Wood Technology" was not something they saw as providing this.

As part of the focus group process, students voted on titles of a degree program that they would find appealing. They had multiple choices; among them was "wood technology" and "renewable materials." Renewable Materials was the descriptor that was most popular among the focus group participants, while wood technology was dead last. It shouldn't be too hard to guess what degree we now offer.

The name change was just the beginning of our efforts. We also had in-depth conversations with other stakeholder groups including the potential employers of the graduates we produce. The faculty then held a retreat to determine how the old wood technology curriculum would need to be changed in order to deliver a degree program that would live up to the name "renewable materials" and meet the needs of our stakeholders. A new curriculum was developed that included deleting some old courses (such as "Introduction to Wood Science"), creating some new courses (such as "Renewable Materials for a Green Planet") and modifying the content in other courses (such as "Manufacturing with Renewable Materials," which was previously called "Primary Manufacturing").

Additionally, we modified the delivery method for some content. For example, the Primary, Secondary, and Composites Manufacturing courses each had lab sessions where students would tour relevant forest industry manufacturing facilities. The new manufacturing courses, "Manufacturing with Renewable Materials I and II," do not have lab sessions. The students now take a new course called "Renewable Materials Manufacturing Experience" where the students tour a wide variety of manufacturing facilities in one intensive week-long course. The end product is a degree program that provides students with a blend of technical content and practical business and communication skills that we feel prepares students to enter the broad field of renewable materials.

The outcome of our efforts is that we now have over 60 undergraduates in our program. The makeup of those 60 is quite different than what we have had in the past. We have significantly more females in the program (nearly half) and many come from an urban background. We feel that these youngsters are exactly what are needed to help transition the forest industry into the growing bio-economy, shifting away from commodity products, and enhancing global competitiveness. The first students to complete the full curriculum graduated this year, so it is still too soon to see how this will play out with their employers. However, we expect the redesign will prove to be a valuable contribution to Oregon's forest sector and the future competitiveness of its companies.

Elizabeth Baldwin has over 20 years of international wood sourcing experience. Very widely traveled, her résumé's "Special Skills" section includes "the ability to eat anything from raw horse to deep-fried scorpion." She serves as Metropolitan Hardwood Flooring's (metrofloors.com) ECO (Environmental Compliance Officer) and deals daily with the "green alphabet soup" of today's industry: FSC, CARB, LEED, and much more. She blogs for Hardwood Floors on all things green (and, as she says, " 'grey' and 'blue' and almost every color except 'black and white.' Nothing in this world is black and white, particularly not 'green issues.'")