The well regarded and tough Maritime Forest Ranger School now has an "intro to forestry" course which allows students to explore a career in forestry.
By Harold Hatheway
Since it was established in 1946 as a cooperative effort of the governments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the wood using industries of the two provinces, well over 1,000 students have graduated. But a significant number have been weeded out along the way by the work load and the work ethic instituted by the formidable "Hank" Blenis, and carried on by his successors.
Students start a four and a half month semester in January, spend three months in a monitored summer practicum and come back in September for another three and a half months. Classes and field work,which goes on rain, snow or shine-frequently spill over into Saturdays, and the two to five hour night study sessions are notorious. So why change anything? "While there's no shortage of applicants," explains school director Steve Hoyt, "for a long time we have felt that potentially good applicants were discouraged by the increasingly difficult requirement for a full year of woods work experience which frequently means two seasons.
And we have also become increasingly aware that students need basic computer skills when they arrive." Could MFRS come up with a way, through a special course, to expose such students to enough basic forestry to identify those qualified for-and genuinely interested in-the regular course? While such a course would be open to applicants of any age and experience, attention would be centred on recruiting students just out of high school, keen, probably exposed to computers- but lacking practical knowledge of the forest industry, and with little, if any, work experience.
MFRS is a residential school, with exceptions for students who live nearby. Some had work experience, mostly in the service industries, but compared to the "regulars"-by then completing their final semester and up to their ears in final exams-most of the newcomers were understandably less mature. They plunged immediately into their schedule of six five-day modules. Intensive, yes, but clearly intended to be only a basic introduction to the subjects, plus a chance to get a feel for what a career in forestry might be like.
Here's what they faced. Module 1: Heavy Forestry Equipment and Technical Forestry Equipment, with emphasis on application and safe use (the latter including measurements, fire, compass, surveying and GPS). Modules 2 and 3: Chainsaws and Spacing Saw, with emphasis on safety and operation. Module 4: General Forestry: forest terminology and practices, wildlife management, tree identification, tree planting and forest nursery operations. Module 5: Mathematics, English (grammar, composition and comprehension), introduction to computers. Module 6: Standard St. John Ambulance First Aid (no CPR), WHMIS and defensive driving; safety and accident control; occupational health and safety rules for operation of ATVs, watercraft and aircraft.
That may look impressive and, at the time, students felt that this was the real thing- the tough Ranger School approach they had all heard so much about. But when the survivors, who are currently starting the final semester of the regular course, look back, they shake their heads as they realize the depth of their innocence. The course was deemed practical and, with reservations, accomplished its aims. Only 27 of the original 36 completed the six-week course. Some dropped out to pursue other careers.
Others found that high school graduation did not guarantee they would meet the Ranger School's standards for English and mathematics. Gavin Harrison teaches English at the school and, while kind by nature, he becomes distressed discussing the lack of basic language ability of some recent high school graduates. "They can't spell, they don't know the basic rules of grammar, and what is absolutely essential to performing well in the workplace - their ability to comprehend and produce simple, clear information - just isn't good enough. It's not just our problem.
The universities have it too. But we absolutely do not have the time at the school to do remedial work- to succeed here students have to bring that knowledge with them." Others lacked computer skills and discovered that taking time to acquire them meant falling behind in the new work, which never stopped coming. "Students who lack these skills," says Hoyt, "especially those from less computer conscious Nova Scotia, are now urged to take an introductory computer course before coming to MFRS.
" When the dust settled at the end of the year, 27 men and women applied for and were accepted into the regular course starting in January. Part way through the first semester the students say the terminology, basic forest knowledge and limited skills they had been exposed to in the modular course were valuable-in fact essential. They unanimously urged that the math and English modules, which had caused most of the failures, should move from last to first place, a change that is now planned for the second modular course, starting in November, 2000.
Another schedule change raised questions. Because some students have basic saw experience, and many jobs don't require it, the Chainsaw and Spacing Saws section will be last, and optional. Some students see clear benefits in taking saw training. Without it, especially in the area of safety, they might lack the qualifications for some supervisory jobs. Should they get those positions, and not have the training, they might have a hard time holding the respect of the workers.
While the "guinea pigs" support the modular experiment, they are critical of the heavy workload they have had to face in their first regular semester and especially during exams. They say more time is required. Staff opinion seems divided on whether this is a legitimate complaint and the final results won't be known until this December, when the first "modulars" write final exams and the final percentages of success and failure can be compared to the "regulars".
On the basis of the first semester there appears to be a slightly higher failure rate among the newcomers, but Hoyt points out that the samples are too small to yield conclusive results. He and his staff seem satisfied that the experiment was, and continues to be, worthwhile, and the board seems to agree. Potential employers may be leery of the age and limited work experience-but at the end of the day, the reputation of the school still holds. "If you can graduate from the Maritime Forest Ranger School," says Hoyt, "you can cut it in the woods."
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