Students in animal sciences lack exposure, study shows


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 agriculture at the University of Florida (UF) reveals that 86 percent had minimal or no experience working with large domestic farm animals.

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

"Without question, it appears there are an increasing number of students interested in animal sciences and veterinary medicine who do not possess an agricultural or livestock background," says Bryan Reiling, who led the study at the UF's Department of Animal Sciences but is now working for the University of Nebraska (UN).

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

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

The study, published in the Journal of Animal Science, found that students from nonagricultural backgrounds, who were most likely to indicate a career in 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 is: 33 percent, small companion 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 of animal husbandry skills that are often assumed as general knowledge, study authors report.

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

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

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

At the end of the course, students were asked to rank whether the course stimulated their interest and helped their understanding of animal science concepts. Overall, on a scale of 1-5, ratings of the course ranged from 4.54 to 4.85 during a four-year period.

Reiling, who's currently working for UN, wasn't surprised by the findings at UF. That said, speaking about Nebraska, a rural locale, Reiling says he is taken aback by an increasing number of students who do not possess basic 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 experience and consequently fosters greater interests in the animal sciences and veterinary medicine."

Additionally, the study authors note, "As more students enter animal science programs with nonagricultural backgrounds, it will become necessary to reemphasize basic animal handling skills and practical applications through experiential learning activities."

For such a program to work in other university settings, Reiling says it's critical to have a small student/faculty ratio, as well as an ample number of animals to work with if each student is going to have the opportunity to perform basic skills multiple times so they become "comfortable." Additionally, he suggests universities consider the liability factor should a student get hurt.

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