Tomorrow's Research Today

The Department of Wood Science & Engineering distinguishes itself from other departments on campus by offering an extensive undergraduate student research component through its Renewable Materials major. Opportunities to work in the forest products industry enable CoF undergraduates to take valuable steps forward in their careers even before receiving their diplomas. 

David Smith, undergraduate advisor and instructor in the WS&E department credits Ed Jensen and Eric Hansen for starting the program. “One of the casualties of our new Renewable Materials curriculum was the cancelation of the Senior Project requirement. We were looking for a way to expand hands-on learning opportunities for our students when Ed Jensen, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, suggested we take better advantage of the College’s undergraduate mentor/protégé program,” says Smith. “We found that this program, generously supported by the College’s Board of Visitors, is ideally suited to getting undergraduates started in research.”

The primary goal of the program is to provide experiential learning opportunities to students in a way that enables them to work directly with faculty on research and problem solving projects. “Eric Hansen, Professor and Interim WS&E Department Head, was instrumental in encouraging the WSE faculty to recognize the advantages of embracing the program and taking on students in their labs. It not only enhances classroom learning and promotes critical thinking skills, but helps faculty expand their research,”  says Smith. “Eric also perceived it as a way for the department to better serve industry through collaborative applied research.”

Examples of successful student research projects include “Structural Properties of Laminated Beams made with Bamboo,” by Skylar Mlasko and Danny Way, who graduated in June 2012 and are working in industry. Their project was funded by the first-ever grant from the OSU Student Sustainability Initiative. They partnered with Bamboo Revolution and Western Structures, two companies in the renewable materials industry, to fabricate and test beams in a lab in Richardson. 

Another project, “Stormwater Filtration Markets for Biochar,” originated from the wood products industry and involved recent graduate Annie Simmonds (‘12, RM) and junior Camille Moyers (RM). Biochar, created when woody biomass is processed for other purposes, can capture zinc and other heavy metals that contribute to site contamination. Knowledge gained through this study may help industry justify investment in and re-tooling of closed wood-processing mill sites in rural Oregon into biomass processing centers. These sites will use locally available and underutilized forest resources to make valuable products, as well as provide jobs and energy self-sufficiency to economically depressed communities. 

Smith emphasizes that in addition to providing educational opportunities, the program helps fortify relationships between the forest industry and the College. “Having a close relationship with our students’ future employers is good for both the department and for our students,” Smith says. “We want to both help companies solve product performance problems, as well as help students learn about application issues. By developing our students’ skills, we increase our capacity to do testing work that the industry finds financially valuable.”

As for the practicality and usefulness of student research in a professional environment, Smith points out that the RM students often work on projects that originated in industry or were created in order to address industry problems, and that some students are working on supported research in faculty labs. “There is very little, if any, ‘busy work’ being done simply to teach skills,” says Smith. “In all cases, the work has value to every party involved.”

The newest batch of research is led by students such as sophomore Thor Dodson, who has been working with Professor John Nairn on a project combining wood pulp fibers with polymers to form new composites. After his first year in the RM program, Dodson, a member of the University Honors College, is impressed with the research environment. “The College has excellent facilities and a professional atmosphere—these already help prepare students for work in the industry.” 

Based on his experiences so far, Dodson has advice for the next wave of freshman entering the program: “Do your homework! And don’t be afraid to talk to the professors,” he says. “They really do enjoy teaching and ensuring that their students are successful.”