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Encouraging school students to think positively about forestry

Patricia Norton, New Zealand Tree Grower August 2010.

Some eight or nine years ago I was editing some geography resources for secondary schools that discussed questions of sustainable indigenous forestry. I was disappointed in the way forestry was presented, especially the issue of indigenous forestry, and thought it could have been done more positively. This got me wondering about how children might be influenced for or against forestry while still at school.

Eventually I tried looking for forestry-related education topics on New Zealand web pages. It all kept veering off into conservation and environment issues and as a result presented commercial tree growing, either explicitly or implicitly, in a negative light.

Later searches found nothing in the way of teaching resources, although there were several forestry entries once I started looking at the careers web pages. But the question that bothered me was how could school leavers be encouraged to consider forestry as a career if they have no opportunity to learn anything about it at school.

Our solution

At last I asked Bruce Bulloch if he knew whether other branches were doing anything to promote forestry to schools. He put me on to a couple of branches that gave scholarships to tertiary students. But the approach I really liked was that of Men of Trees, who gave prizes in the local schools science fair.

I put a proposal to the Wellington branch committee, with the result that for the past four years we have offered $200 in prize money to the Wellington Schools Science Fair. We have given prizes in three of those years – if we think there is nothing that merits a prize, we do not award one.

The advantages of this, as opposed to scholarships, are −

  • It is something that is publicised in advance when schools are notified of the current year’s fair. This can help encourage both teachers and students to think about forestry-related topics within the context of other disciplines
  • It is a means of giving further publicity to forestry and to our branch at the time of the fair
  • As each award is a one-off, we do not have to worry about monitoring the student, and there are no accountability issues
  • Assessing student entries and talking to students about their work is a lot more fun for us than having to assess written scholarship applications.

What it involves

Those of us who have put aside time each August to judge the entries have a great morning out. In addition to our own criteria, we also have to apply the science fair criteria on scientific approach, originality and presentation. It is remarkable how sophisticated many of the entries are, even from some very young pupils.

In the first year there was nothing that related to forestry. This was probably because students start work on their projects very early in the first term, at which stage it was not known that we would be offering a prize. In the years since there has been a selection of entries which were relevant. In the second year we slightly modified our criteria, and we continue to keep them under review.

Last year our judges were Ket Bradshaw, Helen Tobin and myself. The entries of most relevance to us were a number that compared the efficiency of different kinds of firewood along with one on the extent to which different timbers absorb moisture, one on soil erosion, one on the strength of different timbers, and a couple on shelter.

The winner

We awarded our 2009 prize to Mathieson Carlyle, a year eight pupil from Kelburn Normal School. He had noticed that poplar and willow are often favoured for shelterbelts on farms. He conducted an experiment to see if he could identify any native trees that might be suitable and that could also if necessary be used as stock fodder.

Mathieson had set out and documented his entry very well and his conclusions were valid. He had gone to a lot of effort to consult experts on shelter and poisons. He rejected kowhai and ngaio as being poisonous to stock, and eliminated others for being too slow growing. His conclusion was that mahoe would provide reasonably fast-growing shelter and would not be toxic to stock. We have since learned from Eric Cairns that mahoe is excellent stock fodder.

When we spoke to him, it was obvious that Mathieson had a very clear understanding of the process of his project along with the reasons behind the conclusions that he had reached, and that he could explain them coherently.


Our experience has led us to conclude that the annual science fair is well worth our support. It encourages students to look at forestry from a wide range of aspects and from a very early age – well before they have fixed their mind on what they will do when they leave school.

Just as importantly, we think that just the act of including forestry as a topic leading to a prize raises its profile and triggers questions. We hope these encourage teachers to appreciate that there are many different disciplines, both academic and practical, that forestry can encompass. On top of all that, it is a highly educational, enjoyable and rewarding morning out for our judges.


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