Students in animal sciences lack exposure, study shows

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Gainesville, Fla.-A survey of students enrolled in animal agriculture at the University of Florida (UF) reveals that 86 percent had minimal or no experience working with large domestic farm animals.

Gainesville, Fla.-A survey of students enrolled in animal agricultureat the University of Florida (UF) reveals that 86 percent had minimal orno experience working with large domestic farm animals.

Yet 64 percent of the 788 students polled wished to pursue a career inveterinary medicine.

"Without question, it appears there are an increasing number ofstudents interested in animal sciences and veterinary medicine who do notpossess an agricultural or livestock background," says Bryan Reiling,who led the study at the UF's Department of Animal Sciences but is now workingfor the University of Nebraska (UN).

In the study, "Experiential learning in the animal sciences: developmentof a multi-species large animal management and production practicum,"students were polled over a three-year period on their experience and careergoals.

Some other findings include: 61 percent of students indicated they werefrom urban backgrounds; just 4 percent were raised on a farm or ranch wherethe majority of family income was attributed to production agriculture.

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Science, found that studentsfrom nonagricultural backgrounds who were most likely to indicate a careerin veterinary medicine, were most interested in animal behavior; meanwhile,students of rural backgrounds expressed more interest in animal management.

The breakdown of students and their chosen species: 33 percent, smallcompanion animal; 22 percent, equine; 20 percent, domestic farm animals;and 24 percent, undomesticated zoo animals or wildlife.

Career goals noted by most students call for practical application ofanimal husbandry skills that are often assumed as general knowledge, studyauthors report.

That said, UF developed a multi-species large animal management and productionelective for two consecutive semesters to offer students hands-on experience.

"I believe it is critical that our undergraduate pre-professionalprograms provide these students with experience regarding basic animal husbandryskills," Reiling says of the UF approach.

Student teams rotated among four livestock species (beef, dairy, equineand swine). Duties included feeding and monitoring growth of feedlot cattleand finishing swine, farrowing assistance and baby pig processing, and equinetraining and foaling assistance.

At the end of the course, students were asked to rank whether the coursestimulated their interest and helped their understanding of animal scienceconcepts. Overall, on a scale of 1-5, ratings of the course ranged from4.54 to 4.85 during a four-year period.

Reiling, who's currently working for UN, wasn't surprised by the findingsat UF. That said, speaking about Nebraska, a rural locale, Reiling sayshe is taken aback by an increasing number of students who do not possessbasic animal husbandry skills yet desire these experiential learning programs.

"I believe this trend is occurring throughout the country,"Reiling says. "This program helps quench the need for hands-on experienceand consequently fosters greater interests in the animal sciences and veterinarymedicine."

Additionally, the study authors note, "As more students enter animalscience programs with nonagricultural backgrounds, it will become necessaryto re-emphasize basic animal handling skills and practical applicationsthrough experiential learning activities."

For such a program to work in other university settings, Reiling saysit's critical to have a small student/faculty ratio, as well as an amplenumber of animals to work with if each student is going to have the opportunityto perform basic skills multiple times so they become "comfortable."

Additionally, he suggests universities consider the liability factorshould a student get hurt.

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