FOREST21: Changing the way we look at forestry education

By Dr Eija Laitinen, Head of the FOREST21 project


We live in an ever-changing world, as a result, forestry across the globe faces economic, environmental and social challenges today that were unheard of a decade ago. By 2030, some of these challenges will have been dealt with, others will have fallen away, some will still be an issue and many new challenges will have arisen. As a result, forestry is an industry that is continually having to adapt and evolve to ensure productivity and that it is socially and environmentally sustainable while at the same time remaining competitive in a global market.
As forestry adapts and evolves, so must forestry education to remain current and stay relevant. Course content obviously needs to keep pace with forestry innovations, management practices and the latest research and develop, but it is the type of graduate our forestry degrees are delivering that also need to evolve with the times.

In today’s fast paced world, forestry graduates are expected to enter the workplace running. They need to be able to apply the knowledge and skills they have accrued to find solutions to complex problems, in real world timeframes whilst being mindful of external pressures such as climate change mitigation. The forestry sector is looking for forestry graduates with the vision to apply their knowledge and adapt their skillsets to find innovative and new solutions to complex multifaceted issues. It is no longer enough to have memorised the theoretical trainings and knowledge passed down from your lecturer, because the facts you learn today are often old news by tomorrow. Graduates today need to be the source of their own knowledge and seekers of innovative and sustainable solutions relevant for the forestry industry and forestry stakeholders. To achieve this, they need to be critical and yet creative thinkers, able to source relevant up-to date information, and work well in a multi-dimensional team.

This requires a strong foundation of the so-called ‘soft-skills’: collaboration, commitment, motivation, conflict resolution, and leadership skills. All of which, are critical in determining success in the professional world. Today’s graduates also need to know how to form professional networks. They need a holistic understanding of forestry in the economy as well as its role in social and ecological sustainability, which includes topics such as gender equality within the sector. In short, forestry graduates will require a far broader range of skills which is why through FOREST21 we are moving away from traditional “lecturing” approaches and towards student-centered teaching and learning. 

Student-centered learning is about equipping graduates with the skills and tools needed to be innovative and able to solve problems in any setting. Central to this, is allowing students to gain confidence to utilize their own knowledge and experiences to do this. Real-life industry cases present an opportunity for graduates to hone these skills, by working with industry partners as they would in a workplace situation to solve a real problem, as a collaborative effort. Through solving real industry challenges, the students are able to develop their knowledgebase, skill sets, industry networks and professional attitude; and here is where the benefit and strength of problem-based learning resides.

It is why problem-based learning can be used in the development of entrepreneurship skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. A graduate with an entrepreneurial mindset will have the confidence that through self-directed learning they will have the skills to recognize gaps in their understanding and where there is a need for more information to face new and emerging challenges. Many of the challenges society faces require entrepreneurial mindsets to address them, people who think outside of the box, who innovate and find new ways forward. An example of the impact a shift to an entrepreneurial mindset could have is when looking at rural unemployment. If we train graduates to simply fulfill the requirements of a specific role, then all they will be able to do at the end of their studies is fulfil that one role. If we give a student the entrepreneurial skillsets they need to innovate, they will create forestry opportunities and potentially jobs that could help address rural unemployment.

Placing the focus on students-centered learning, brings about changes in the role of teachers too. Facilitators of problem-based learning need understanding on how to open the minds of the students, how to motivate them and how to support the knowledge construction of the students. FOREST21 trains teaching staff in student centered pedagogics, ensuring they are well networked with the industry and forestry stakeholders to be able to develop the student project cases in collaborative processes. A climate-smart approach to forestry is important aspect of the FOREST21 initiative.

Globally, we are now recognizing the real need to move towards social and environmental sustainability, be it through minimising waste, reducing our environmental footprint and carbon consumption, ensuring gender equality or food security. Climate-smart forestry fits with this remit. By ensuring forest management is conducted in a manner which mitigates the impact of climate change on forest operations and long-term the sustainability of the Forest Sector; whilst adapting forest operations and management practices to increase carbon storage in forest biomass and harvested wood products (HWP). In addition to forest management practices, climate smart forestry is about using the resources in frugal way, minimizing waste by utilizing it as a raw material in another way.


While climate-smart forestry sounds simple, but there is no prescribed way to implement it, as it needs to be placed in the local context. What works for Finland will not necessarily work for South Africa. FOREST21 will play a role in developing climate-smart forestry in the South African context, by bringing together all the higher education institutes offering forestry degrees and diplomas and the forestry industry to develop a view of where climate-smart forestry in South Africa should be headed.

The next step for the FOREST21 initiative is start piloting student projects, these will be web-based because of the pandemic. The projects will give our students a taste of what real world problem-solving is all about. Building and mentoring the pilot cases needs collaboration between the university involved and our industry partners. Only through collaboration can we develop the industry-cases the students will be challenged with. It is the levels of collaboration and commitment shown by the academic institutions and forestry industry that really excites me about FOREST21. The fact all the South African forestry universities are committed to this initiative and have their own responsibilities and roles makes it very powerful. It really is a mutual learning process and one I believe lecturers like me will benefit as much from as the students and the forestry sector.

Meet Dr Eija Laitinen, Head of the FOREST21 project

Eija’s a qualified professional teacher trainer, with an educational background is in agriculture and forestry and a PhD in education. For the past 15 years, Eija has been involved in rural development projects in Africa, with the focus of generating income for these communities and education-based capacity building. Gender equality is at core of all Eija’s work.