First woman receives Society of American Foresters award for outstanding forestry education

Society of American Foresters

Carolyn Copenheaver, second from left, works with students during a field session on wildflower identification.

Carolyn Copenheaver, associate professor of forest ecology in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, has been honored with the 2018 Carl Alwin Schenck Award from the Society of American Foresters.

Copenheaver is the first woman to receive this honor in its 30-year history. The award is given annually to a faculty member who demonstrates exceptional devotion to the instruction of forestry and to the development of teaching methods that impart knowledge of forestry through dynamic communication skills.

“In her teaching and interactions with students, Dr. Copenheaver’s passion and commitment are difficult to match, and she is a model of exceptional engagement with the teaching endeavor,” wrote Jay Sullivan, head of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, in Copenheaver’s nomination letter.

Copenheaver, who has taught at Virginia Tech for 18 years, has an extensive record of publications in leading forestry and forestry pedagogy journals, including 23 papers that she has published with 70 graduate students. She teaches a junior-level course in forest ecology and silvics, a graduate course in advanced forest ecology, and a new team-taught course in field experience.

She emphasizes merging content teaching with lessons that will help her students practice communicating their understanding of forestry.

“One thing I try really hard at, in both my undergraduate and graduate classes, is doing a lot of soft-skill work,” Copenheaver said. “This is something that started when I spoke to professional foresters who had just interviewed some Virginia Tech students. They said, ‘On paper these students look great, but they walk into the room and they have trouble talking to you about the subject.’ And I thought: we never practice that. We tend to give exams on paper, and our students have to write their knowledge, but they don’t necessarily have to speak their knowledge.”

Copenheaver has worked to change that, integrating oral exam requirements into her classes and incorporating formal and informal elements into the classroom experience to encourage students to sharpen their communication and professionalism skills.

A testament to Copenheaver’s influence is the fact that one of her award nomination letters was written by the 54 students in her Forest Ecology and Silvics course.

“Dr. Copenheaver is a perfect candidate for this honor because she is truly devoted to the instruction of forestry and pays individual attention to all students to ensure that they have everything they need to succeed academically and professionally,” the students wrote. “She has encouraged us to grow in our own professional development and teamwork skills by providing opportunities to engage in teams on projects relevant to current topics in forestry and investigate our own interests and observations in forest ecology in the field.”

Copenheaver said that she was particularly proud that her students had helped her garner this award, which required a two-step application process. She was selected as a candidate for the award by the Appalachian Society of American Foresters regional chapter and then had to submit letters of recommendation to the Society of American Foresters.

Copenheaver is pleased to be the first women to receive the award, given in honor of Carl Alwin Schenck, a pioneer in forestry education in the United States. She notes, however, that she does not expect to be the last women honored, as forestry is becoming a more diverse field of study.

“There weren’t a lot of women in forestry when I was going to school, and I think that’s changing,” she said. “My class is now up to about 45 percent female, whereas when I first started teaching, my classes were almost entirely male. That’s a sign that the discipline is becoming more diverse, and I happen to be on the edge of that change.”

Two other Virginia Tech faculty members have received the prestigious Carl Alwin Schenck award: John Seiler, the Honorable and Mrs. Shelton H. Short Jr. Professor of Forestry, in 1998, and David W. Smith, professor emeritus of forestry, in 1990.

Copenheaver earned her bachelor’s degree from Juniata College, her master’s from the University of Maine, and her doctorate from Pennsylvania State University.



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