A meeting of minds: the recipe for growing the next generation of foresters

By Dr Tatenda Mapeto – Forestry Lecturer, Nelson Mandela University (NMU)


If someone asked me to sum up forestry in a sentence I would say, “it is forever changing; always adapting and evolving”. Forestry never sits still it cannot afford to. There are always new environmental, social and economic pressures that require the forestry industry to adapt, evolve and grow to stay productive and competitive in a global market. As a result, forestry training must also evolve and respond. This is what makes forestry such an exciting profession to be in.

At Nelson Mandela University, NMU, our entry qualification, the diploma takes a “fit for purpose approach”, where forestry graduates are given the training and skillsets necessary to walk into a forestry position post-graduation and be able to fulfil all the requirements of that role. Our Y-model qualification mix ensures that at the start of their three-year diploma, a student is exposed to a wide variety of skillsets applicable across the industry and its value chain. As they progress to an advanced diploma, to a BSc Honours and maybe to postgraduate studies, their focus narrows as they select a forestry career path to follow and therefore are intentional about developing the relevant skillsets for that career. This is an adaptive approach to forestry education.

One of the biggest drivers for a flexible and responsive curriculum that can adapt to real-world issues, is the strong ties that have been forged between educational institutes and the forestry industry. As lecturers, we frequently go for industry site visits to ensure our teaching remains relevant and that we are up to date with the latest advances and innovations being used by the sector. Industry members sit on our advisory boards, providing real-world perspectives. The result of this is we are now seeing emphasis being placed on non-technical forestry competencies that stretch beyond core forestry competencies, but also look at the socio-ecological and socio-economic aspects of forestry. Forestry communication and leadership now feature in the curriculum too. Since I have been at NMU, I have been a part of this engaged and responsive curriculum as it evolves and develops to ensure our students are best equipped to meet the demands of the sector. It’s exciting because it pushes you as a lecturer to broaden your understanding and invest in your personal growth.

Beyond curriculum changes, the way we teach is also evolving and changing. Delivering yesterday’s lectures is no longer enough, the way we facilitate knowledge acquisition to students also must change with the times. An example is that a few years ago, a task to summarise research on a particular subject would have just been a written summary, whereas now students can also submit technical video summaries produced on their smartphones. COVID has accelerated the adoption of new technologies. WhatsApp, polling technologies and video conferencing came into their own and I think are here to stay. As a lecturer, it is interesting to see how just the integrated use of WhatsApp and email increases student engagement. This is probably also a result of the unavailability of internet infrastructure in some areas of our country, and one must improvise while being stern on the quality of learning experiences. In this respect, communication has never been so important. It needs to be directed at a student level, inclusive in terms of understanding their circumstances and adaptive to make use of the communication channels and technologies they are increasingly familiar with.

groundwater monitoring - tatenda

There will be those who question whether we are pandering to increasingly demanding student needs. I feel this is somewhat short-sighted, as yes we are changing the way we teach but like everything in forestry, this needs to evolve. Our primary responsibility is to mould the next generation of skilled forestry professionals through knowledge transfer, and to do this we need to close the succession gap. My way or the highway attitude to this simply doesn’t work. We must remember the student generation of today are our customers of the future, and as an industry we need to learn to communicate with them. This means embracing the technology channels and devices they are using rather than shunning them.

Looking forward, it is an exciting time to be in forestry education. While we are seeing many other departments close their doors, forestry is expanding to meet demands for a sustainable, bio-based circular economy. To address this, international collaboration like FOREST21, facilitated by Forestry South Africa (FSA), has the potential to transform forestry education in the future by placing greater emphasis on climate-smart forestry, entrepreneurialism and student-centred learning. These new education models promote cooperation between educational institutions and industry, after all the students of today must be ready to solve real-world problems of industry in the future. It is therefore imperative that we equip this generation of students with business minds that can think critically and innovate. Through FOREST21 we aim to improve the forestry curriculum to include a variety of learning experiences that involve problem-solving and expose the students to the work/life paradigms. The programme is about building capacity, exposing students to real-world industry problems and through active participation, equipping them with the skills, work ethics and mindsets to address them. For the lecturers involved it is a huge mindset shift but as life-long students, I think most relish this challenge. It is exciting to be able to develop and evolve ourselves, to open new collaborative doors with industry and gain our own real-world experiences. For industry, it is a chance to actively participate in the shaping of students, ensuring they are workplace ready and have the skills they need to excel. It is a win-win for everyone involved.

In terms of forestry education, South Africa is emerging as a world leader. We have already seen keynote speakers at global forestry conferences attribute the success of forestry in their countries to the education they received in ours. We want to consolidate this, to be a shining example on the world stage. I see FSA playing a leading role in this going forward, coordinating the collaboration between industry and education as well as identifying the future educational challenges that will need to be addressed. They have networks and connections which means their finger is always on the pulse when it comes to the economic, environmental and social pressures the industry faces, the importance of which should not be underestimated. Our students need to be ready to face these challenges and we will achieve this through collaboration, with FSA, the forestry industry and other educational institutes both here and abroad. I have said it before, but it is worth repeating – we live in turbulent yet exciting times.

Meet Dr Tatenda Mapeto – Forestry Lecturer, Nelson Mandela University (NMU)

A forestry academic in the Natural Resources Science and Management Cluster at the Nelson Mandela University. Tatenda’s expertise is in forest inventory, planning and the decision-making environment that forest resource managers operate in. Her research interests are around socio-economic and environmental aspects of sustainable forest management, as well as eco-hydrological patterns in tree systems against the background of seeking the best possible use of water for a defined human and ecological need. Tatenda is an active contributor to the national and international forest education processes.