Assessing Wood Quality: Involving Renewable Materials Students in Applied Research

Allison Zumwalt (Renewable Materials and Interior Design dual major, 2014) and Kevin Harry (Renewable Materials 2014) are getting some hands-on training in assessing wood quality.  The two students are assisting with a project to assess the wood quality of fast-grown plantation hardwoods.  The sponsor company is interested in knowing how the slope-of-grain, hardness, and machinability of the wood varies by clone as well as by position within the tree (butt log, second log, etc.).  

Allison and Kevin are learning first-hand how to prepare samples, condition them to the proper moisture content, and then to conduct quantitative as well as qualitative assessments of wood quality.  For example, for slope-of-grain, they are splitting boards and measuring the angle of the split; and for hardness they are learning to use a universal testing machine to follow the methods outlined in ASTM test standard D143.  However, tests to evaluate the machinability of the wood require more subjective methods.  They are essentially assigning a grade to each piece based on visual inspection following planing and shaping.

Involving undergraduate students in industry-sponsored projects such as these is a win-win situation.  Student workers help to get projects done in a more timely fashion (given limited time for faculty and research assistants) and the projects reinforce and broaden what the students learn in their coursework.  As Allison said: “This project has exposed me to many new aspects of wood science that I wouldn’t have been able to gain on my own doing.  For example, I was familiar about the hardness of a wood but I have learned why we measure hardness, how to measure hardness and what applications that these measurements have...  I am thrilled that I’m working on a project that is innovative, applicable and could potentially make a great difference…” And Kevin stated, “This work will greatly help me in years to come in my coursework and whatever future job or jobs I have, because it’s a process of learning how to conduct a project like this in terms of research and manual labor, and just the time and effort it takes to do a project…”