Why we need to teach bioeconomy in forestry universities – Lessons from Austria

Forestry students are a key part of the future workforce shaping and enabling the bioeconomy. Yet, we know very little about how they perceive this concept. Has the bioeconomy been introduced to forestry students? Are students aware of bioeconomy? If so, what does it mean for them? For answering these questions, PerForm researchers are busy conducting student surveys across Europe. However, engaging students in discussions about bioeconomy is not always easy.  Low response rates are one of the main challenges that data collectors face. But a Master student from the University of Natural Resources and Life Science in Vienna (BOKU) has cracked to code. Having gathered some 200 responses in record time, he already has some interesting results to share with us.

Christoph Stelzer is studying in the master program Environmental and Bioresource Management at BOKU. He is currently writing on his master thesis titled “Perception of forest-based bioeconomy by forestry students” under the supervision of Peter Schwarzbauer, Lea Maria Ranacher and Helga Pülzl. He wants to find out what forestry students (defined in his thesis as Bachelor-, Master-, PhD- students) from his university think about bioeconomy. More specifically, he is interested to find out if students have ever heard about this concept during their studies.

Christoph collecting data

The recipe for success

Initially, PerForm researchers planned to conduct online surveys. They would distribute the surveys through student mailing lists, and expectantly wait for as many responses as possible. But Christoph soon realized that this approach wouldn’t work with his colleagues.

“A 20-minute online survey will be much too long and students will not finish it; some might not even start at all” he noticed.

Knowing his colleagues and their routines quite well from own experience, Christoph decided to approach the data collection a bit differently. Before starting, he thought hard about three questions:

What is the best method? When is the best time?” and “where is the best place to collect data?

He decided to make a printed version of the survey, which looked much shorter than an online survey, mainly because there were just two pages to fill in. As for the best time and place to collect data, he figured the beginning of the semester was suitable, because that’s the time most students are around and, as Christoph puts it, the time when students are “still motivated”.

Getting students to help you in their free time is not so easy “Christoph recounts.

Instead of asking random students on campus if they were studying forestry, Christoph decided to ask course instructors which lectures he should target.  He then wrote a friendly e-mail to several lecturers asking for their help. Most of the lecturers did. They sent out emails to their class promoting Christoph’s survey. In several cases, they even allowed their students to answer the questionnaire during the lecture. As a small thank you, he gave his respondents sweets.

So what exactly is the recipe for his success?

I would say that to get such a long and intensive questionnaire answered, you have to be dedicated, while being nice and friendly to potential respondents and university staff – the persons that help you to reach your target. Thus, many thanks to all people that helped me with my survey.” Those are some nice pro-tips for colleagues currently collecting data in other PerForm partner countries.

First results are promising

Without doubt, Christoph’s approach proved successful. He managed to gather 200 responses, a pretty impressive feat for a single data collector. He is now analyzing his data and already has some interesting results to share.

His first results indicate that around 50% of bachelor students have heard about bioeconomy, but have very diverse understandings of the concept. In the case of the master students, more than 80% say that they have heard about bioeconomy and that they’ve heard about the concept in some of their final Bachelor semester courses.

Interestingly, most forestry students in Christoph’s sample seem to associate bioeconomy with sustainable business. Results from other PerFom countries may show different student perceptions and expectations.

Teaching bioeconomy has to be a priority

There is a growing need to make bioeconomy-related knowledge accessible for university students. A recent article in Nature, raises concerns over the ever increasing shortage of talented workforce needed to realize our ambitious bioeconomy goals. The authors raise an important issue, namely how will the emerging bioeconomy secure the necessary people in light of impending retirements, work age gaps, and lack of youth interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics?

Given the importance of the forest-based sector for the bioeconomy, forestry students are key stakeholders. With other words, they are the shapers and enablers of the future bioeconomy. It is thus crucial to allow them to get involved in co-creating this future.  But for this, Universities have to come up with innovative approaches to overcome the shortage in quality and quantity of workforce needed.

Christoph’s work – and that of other PerForm researchers conducting this study across Europe- will be essential to our understanding of how to design innovative and relevant education curricula that will provide students with the interdisciplinary skills needed to enable a successful bioeconomy transition.

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