Princesa Ceballos (left), a sophomore at Porterville High School in Tulare County, helps her partner measure the circumference of a tree. (Photo by Sydney Johnson/EdSource)

While some California schools shut their doors in October during a blackout intended to prevent wildfires, lessons continued outdoors for a group of students tucked away high in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

There, high school students from Sacramento to Los Angeles gathered at Forestry Challenge, a statewide program and competition that aims to train students in technical forest skills and management.

California has adopted new academic standards in math and science to help grow the number of students prepared for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM. Similar to other STEM fields, employers in California’s forestry and natural resources industries are in need of a larger and more diverse pool of qualified applicants.

The need for sustainable forest management is ever-present as fires rage across California this fall. Several volunteer instructors at the program who work for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection stressed the need for more qualified applicants to help protect California’s forests.

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“Forestry is a little bit invisible to most folks. Most people think of park rangers and that’s a very limited way of looking at land management,” said Erin Kelly, an associate professor of forest economics and administration at Humboldt State University. Foresters have a broad range of responsibilities from managing tree growth to providing technical expertise for improving the health and economic viability of forests.

A 2018 survey by Shasta College found that 45 percent of natural resource businesses in Northern California — including forestry, fuel production and environmental consulting — are experiencing or anticipate a workforce shortage. State government employers reported the most difficulty finding qualified forestry applicants in the last five years, according to a 2019 study by Kelly and Greg Brown, head of the Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Forestry Challenge is trying to change that by teaching students new skills and career pathways.

Founded in 2003 by Diane Dealey Neill, Forestry Challenge takes place in five counties around the state: Shasta, El Dorado, Santa Cruz, San Bernardino and Tuolumne. At each site, participants spend four days learning from professional foresters how to collect forest data, then analyze and present their findings around a given task to a panel of judges at the end of the program.

The group with the most impressive presentation then competes for a state championship in April 2020 in Pinecrest, near Yosemite, along with the winning teams from the other locations.

Each location has a different theme. In 2018, one of the most destructive years for forest fires in California history, students in Santa Cruz honed in on fire safety and how prescribed burns can help reduce the impact of fire later on. This year, 12 schools participated in the Santa Cruz competition, where 84 students were tasked with evaluating a piece of land and making recommendations for a timber management plan, taking into account tree health and density, future harvesting, economic cost and biological impact.

Math teacher Blake Schmidt shows students how to count the age of a tree using an extracted sample from a tree trunk.

Between warm breakfasts and night hikes, students at the Santa Cruz competition broke out into groups for specific skills training they would be tested on later in the week. Some learned how to read a compass and practiced pacing, a skill foresters use to measure distance with steps rather than a tape measure. Others twisted increment bores into tree trunks to extract samples that determine age and health.

“There is no textbook to flip to the back and no right answer,” said Neill, adding that her favorite part of the event is the “Ask a Forester” session where students can get feedback on their proposals from professionals. “Scores are based on how you present the information and how you back it up based on your data.”

Many students return year after year to the program, like Salvatore Deguara, a senior at San Lorenzo Valley High School in Santa Cruz County who is taking AP Environmental Science this year. “It’s so interesting to see the application of what we learn in class and solve real-world problems, instead of just a word problem,” he said before starting a lesson on using a dichotomous key to identify tree species.

Deguara organized the trip for his school and said he wants to study environmental sciences next year in college. “Kids here are beginning to make decisions about what they want to do for college or work and there’s this big push to go into tech,” he said. “But many don’t know you can actually go work outside.”

That was the case for Victoria Thek, a forestry major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo who is one of nearly 150 volunteers that help run the competition.

“I didn’t know I wanted to do forestry until my second year in college,” Thek said. “No one knows about this field until someone tells them.” But teachers and outdoor learning programs can expose students to forestry careers well before they enter college, she added.

Since the 1980s, enrollment in forestry programs has declined at many colleges around the country, according to a study published by the Society of American Foresters. Kelly says that many California foresters are now nearing retirement, but not enough young foresters are prepared to step in.

Blake Schmidt, a math teacher at Ross Middle School in Marin County, decided to take his students to Forestry Challenge after participating in a free statewide program for California teachers called the Forestry Institute for Teachers.

Kylie Adams and Dalia Gonzalez, two seniors at Monache High School near Bakersfield, practice using a compass.

During the week-long residential program, teachers learn about California’s forest ecosystems, how people use natural resources, and work with curriculum experts to design lessons aligned to the Next Generation Science Standards, new academic standards that emphasize hands-on projects and integrate several scientific disciplines.

Schmidt sees connections between forestry and his math lessons and other subjects, too. Students at Forestry Challenge practice trigonometry when using a clinometer, which calculates tree height by measuring the angle between the user, who stands at a distance, and the top of the tree. Data analysis and biology come together when students calculate the tree density of a given plot of land. And California history and geography are woven into exercises on reading maps and how government policies and timber harvests impact the region’s ecology.

“Forestry is a STEM discipline, but it’s really multidisciplinary,” Kelly said. “It includes all of the components of STEM and a lot of knowledge of policy and economics and hopefully building relationships with the public and landowners.”

Story originally published by EdSource.