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The College of Natural Resources and Environment at Virginia Tech is considered among the nation's best.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Wood Enterprise Institute student president Jeremy Withers, center, crafts an ornate coffee table in the Thomas M. Brooks Forest Products Center that's part of Virginia Tech's College of Natural Resources and Environment.
MATT GENTRY | The Roanoke Times
Wood Enterprise Institute team member Chris Moore (left) inspects a finished ornate coffee table in the Innovation Lab at the Thomas M. Brooks Forest Products Center. WEI is a student-run entrepreneurial venture.
Thursday, May 16, 2013
BLACKSBURG — About 170 of the more than 5,800 Virginia Tech students set to graduate this week will receive their degrees from the smallest of the university’s eight academic colleges.
But small doesn’t mean inconsequential. Tech is widely known across the country for its largest college, engineering. But in the fields it serves, the College of Natural Resources and Environment is considered among the best of its national peers.
And in faculty performance as measured by grant funding, the smallest college is nipping at the heels of its elder brother. As such, university spokesman Larry Hincker has dubbed it “the little college that could.”
Restructuring and growth in the college over the past four years under Dean Paul Winistorfer may make natural resources bigger (with a goal to increase undergraduate enrollment from 725 to 1,000) and more competitive.
Initiatives such as the college’s Leadership Institute are already working to better prepare graduates for careers in its four departments: fish and wildlife conservation, forest resources and environmental conservation, geography and sustainable biomaterials (formerly called wood science).
Now in its third year, the Leadership Institute offers 12 juniors and seniors selected from a pool of applicants two semesters of training in leadership and collaboration. During that year, the students attend a leadership class, accrue practical experience through group projects and have a chance to network with natural resources leaders in Richmond and Washington.
The class teaches students “more about things we don’t normally learn in the classroom,” said Matt Layman, 22, of Harrisonburg, a graduating senior in the college’s department of geography who is studying geographical information systems.
“We learned a lot about ourselves and how people lead effectively, particularly in the natural resources field,” he said.
But the networking opportunities were “the highlight of the whole experience,” Layman said.
During the one-week trip to Richmond and D.C., Layman said he and his classmates got to meet with the president of MeadWestvaco, a secretary of environment and water quality, as well as officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of State.
“We got to ask them what they are looking from new graduates,” he said. “Plus, we ate really well.”
Layman said after commencement he is bound for the University of Denver to work on his master’s degree.
“I’ve had a great experience at Tech,” Layman said.
Claire Helmke, a 22-year-old wildlife sciences major from Fairfax, said her participation in the institute came up several times during a recent job interview with the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish.
In answering her interviewer’s questions, Helmke said she kept coming back to examples from her institute experience. At the end of the questions, the interviewer wanted to hear all about the program, she said.
A big part of the institute program is a group project that requires collaboration and teamwork. Helmke’s group started off with a grand idea to publicize the college to prospective students by taking them into the woods for an elaborate demonstration of the college’s careers.
“But nobody signed up,” she said.
Like problem-solving in the real world, the group had to adjust their expectations. After a few more false starts, they hit upon the idea to combine publicizing the college with raising money for the university’s Relay for Life. Helmke said they even got Winistorfer involved with their “Kiss a Fish” fundraiser.
All told, she said, the group raised $7,800 for Relay. And the students, pulled from all four of the college’s departments, had a meaningful experience to put on their resumes.
Helmke said the project’s challenges and ultimate success taught her not just how to accomplish a task, but also “the importance of having a group to do it with.”
While she doesn’t know how much her participation in the institute affected her job interview, she knows one thing: She starts work on Monday.
“I’m pretty stoked,” she said.
The institute is but one change to the College of Natural Resources and Environment. In fact, the college has undergone several changes over the past four years and is working toward approval of new degrees, Winistorfer said.
Although it is the smallest of the academic colleges on campus, natural resources does big research, even compared with Tech’s largest and best known College of Engineering.
One way to compare the colleges is to look at per capita research funding, or the average of grant awards to each college relative to the number of faculty.
On a per capita basis, at about $228 in sponsored research, natural resources falls just behind engineering at close to $245, according to Hincker.
The per capita research total comprises only funding administered through each academic college. Those figures do not include grants administered through the university’s seven research institutes, Hincker said.
Split off from the College of Agriculture 20 years ago, today’s College of Natural Resources and Environment comprises four academic departments.
And it continues to grow. Today undergraduate enrollment stands at 725, up from 470 two years ago. Winistorfer said the goal is to push that to 1,000. Work also continues on expanding the college’s degree options from two to four, Winistorfer said.
The college is hiring more faculty, including seven new professor/researchers to staff a new major centered in the college called “Water: Resources, Policy and Management.” Winistorfer called it a “campuswide degree” that will be “interdisciplinary and very different than anything … out there right now.”
The degree will encompass five academic colleges and 10 departments in science, engineering, social science and policy, offering students a comprehensive foundation for working on water resources, the dean said.
It’s part of a new “global problems” focus Winistorfer says will be more important in the years to come, even as the college continues “standing on our traditional degree foundations.”
“Our work today has to be relevant and timely,” he said. “We have got to position our students for the future.”
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