Mark Savage (far left) with students in Brewer’s Forestry Immersion program

A New Summer Program Supports Students and Maine’s Future Forest Economy

Written by: Logan Johnson

On a cool August morning, high school students, with their instructor, thoughtfully assessed the breakdown. Visitors were coming, and they wanted the equipment running well to show off all they had learned this summer. Calmly and thoughtfully, the students replaced the damaged hoses on the forwarder, and the operation was up and running again. Six students aged 15 to 18 and their instructors demonstrated their harvest operations to representatives from the state government, forest sector businesses, and nonprofits. After felling and forwarding a few logs, the students became the teachers, showing their visitors how to operate the equipment they used this summer. Back at camp, their classmates prepared a Maine Woods classic for their visitors: bean hole beans.

Brewer Forestry Immersion Program participants

These nine students spent the summer in the woods near Katahdin Iron Works for the first Forestry Immersion Program, a program developed by the Brewer School Department in collaboration with the Maine TREE Foundation. This program was possible thanks to a grant from the Maine Department of Education Summer 2023 Forestry Stewardship & Career Pathways program as part of the Governor’s Maine Outdoor Learning Initiative and Emergency Education Relief Program. However, the story begins a decade earlier, with an educator with a vision and a passion.

Mark Savage, an Outdoor Education Teacher at Brewer School Department, initially had the idea to develop The Forestry Immersion Program more than ten years ago to provide students with an immersive experience in Maine’s forests. Savage comes from a logging family and has taught Outdoor Education at Brewer High School for 37 years. Motivated by his passion and vision, Mark developed the connections between the Brewer School Department, Maine TREE, and countless other collaborators to bring the program to life in 2023.

Students make observations in their nature journals

“The major takeaway from this past summer for me is that we need to listen to our students more often,” Mark shared about the program. He continued, “They need to have a say in how and what materials are presented to them. Our educational system needs to change to meet the students’ needs and wants. But we continue trying to drive round pegs into square holes. Real profound changes are a must in order to meet the needs of our students.”

The six-week summer immersion program in Piscataquis County had students camping in the Maine woods four nights a week to learn about forest ecology, wildlife habitat, and careers associated with Maine’s great outdoors. The program’s primary objectives were to provide a basic education in forestry, natural resources, and forest-based manufacturing; develop workplace and life skills such as communication, teamwork, and a strong work ethic; introduce forest-based and outdoor recreation career opportunities; and guide students on the many pathways available to prepare for these careers.

Students work together to winch a log

Four educators were on-site to support technical instruction and provide hands-on lessons to students. During the program, the students operated harvesting equipment, including a chainsaw, processor, and forwarder, at an active logging operation, built tent platforms, hiked Katahdin, and collected forest inventory data through the Forest Ecology Research Network Program. The students earned up to two credits toward high school graduation while gaining the tools and values necessary to become stewards of the Maine woods and influence others to do the same.

Students operating a forwarder

“I think that this summer was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had because of how integrated the learning was for each student there and being able to have a say in what we do each day. Along with having our projects around camp and some kids like me who just wanted to go operate the equipment. Overall as a whole this program has changed the way I look at the woods,” shared Trevor Levensalor, one of the student participants. 

Hunter Dawson, another student, shared, “This summer changed my whole view on education. It showed me that it is possible for teachers to adjust the way that they teach in order to comply with their student’s needs. The less schedule-based education allowed us (the students) to learn at a rate that encouraged our personal learning styles as well as tendencies. The dedication of the students and educators allowed us to make a  program that encouraged our growth as students as well as people.”

Students practice tree ID

The first year of the Forestry Immersion Program not only prepared students for meaningful careers in Maine’s forest and demonstrated a unique education model where students benefit from hands-on, immersive instruction. It familiarized the students with opportunities and equipped them with skills and values to inspire them to contribute to the forest, a unique state-wide resource. The success of this program has highlighted the importance of reaching young people early to engage them in this mission. 

“This model is one answer to the forest workforce development challenges in Maine’s forests,” said Logan Johnson, Executive Director of Maine TREE Foundation. He continued, “We must continue to create and support programs like the Forestry Immersion Program to provide students the opportunity to develop a connection and appreciation for the forest so they can see themselves working in the woods one day.” 

One happy operator!

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