Study abroad program opens minds

International travel opens minds to new information, new ways of perceiving the world, and new possibilities. To help students experience these shifts in thinking, Associate Professor Chris Knowles and Professor Eric Hansen in the Department of Wood Science & Engineering offer students from all disciplines and academic institutions the chance to travel internationally while simultaneously gaining exposure to various cultural, historic, manufacturing, construction and sustainability aspects of forestry and wood products. 

“The original goal was to give students who have never traveled internationally an easy, safe way to travel, experience another culture, and learn something about the field of forestry and wood products in general,” Knowles says. 

A student’s level of experience with international travel is not a limiting factor to join the tours, however.

“We like to host students from diverse backgrounds who might not otherwise think about forestry and wood products or understand the sustainability aspects associated with them,” Knowles says. 

Knowles’ research focuses on global markets for renewable materials, and Hansen studies environmental marketing and corporate social responsibility. They both recognize the need to create more interest in the global aspects of forestry, and they want students to take advantage of opportunities to learn how things are done in other countries.

Their European educational tours, hosted every other summer, began in 2009 with stops in Finland, Sweden and Norway. Later trips have included visits to Denmark, Slovenia, Switzerland, Italy and Austria. In summer 2017, students will visit Slovenia, Italy, Austria and Switzerland. 

“The itinerary includes a good mix of significant cultural and historic sites. For example, in Slovenia we’re going to look at salt production, which is actually living history, because they still produce salt the way they have for hundreds of years,” Knowles says. 

The site is relevant to forestry because timber is used in constructing structures for salt production. 

“We’ll also be looking at mass timber construction issues in Europe, where they’ve been doing mass timber for quite a bit longer than we have,” he says. “There’s a lot we can learn from them.”

Hansen says the team is especially interested in including architectural students in the 2017 tour, because it will include more focus on architecture. Professor Mariapaola Riggio, is an architect and native Italian, and she will be leading visits to noteworthy historic architectural sites in Venice.  

Knowles and Hansen ask students to journal daily during the trips, and they have witnessed remarkable changes in participants both during and after the tours.

“It’s great to watch the evolution of their thought,” Hansen says. He tells the story of a College of Business student who traveled with them on the first tour: “She was anti-forestry when she came — not so happy about the idea of cutting down trees. At end of two weeks, she understood how harvesting trees could be part of sustainable practice.”