September 15, 2006

C.U. Farm Promotes Student Interaction with Animals

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Walking around East campus, don’t be alarmed if you see a horse grazing next to you — he’s a member of Cornell, too. In an area frequented primarily by veterinary students, animal science majors and a group good-naturedly referred to as the “dairy kids,” lies “Ezra’s Farm,” a teaching barn whose residents include two calves, a family of sheep, chicks, nine pink pigs, and of course, a horse named Suds.

Ezra’s Farm is primarily used as a hands-on lab and learning resource center for students in a domestic animal biology course taught by Prof. W. B. Currie, animal science.

Currie said that Cornell used to be surrounded by all farms, but now only Ezra’s Farm remains on campus. The animal sciences program integrated the use of live subjects from the barn about 20 years ago. Although the nature of the class has changed, the use of live animals as learning tools has remained.

As part of the program, students not only observe, but also care for the animals throughout the year. Every morning and night, Currie’s students perform chores at the barn, such as cleaning the stalls, feeding the animals and even bathing the horses.

But Currie is also a realist and admits that sometimes students will sleep through their 8 a.m. chores.

“Being students there all sorts of reasons why they won’t show up — partially due to hangovers,” he said.
To combat this problem, instructors have organized the class into “teams” that operate on a schedule of responsibilities to ensure that there are always at least four students available.

Professor Currie sees the interaction between student and animal as a valuable experience, noting that, “some students have never had any contact with farm animals and may feel a bit intimidated, but this is a means for them to face that intimidation”.

Students also have access to the barn 24/7 and are encouraged to spend time at the facility outside of class.
Currie said, “It is one of the only animal facilities that I know of where they intentionally make it available to people.”

Currie recalled an incident where a group of his students were arrested on a Saturday night by a Cornell police officer who didn’t believe they had permission to use the barn.

Currie now gives all his students a piece of advice, telling them to give him a call if they are ever stopped and always starts his lecture with, “If you get apprehended this is what you should do…”

Although students provide the majority of the animal care, the use of the animals is also monitored by the department.
Professor Currie submits a protocol at the beginning of every year that is reviewed and approved before the animals are brought in. Despite these necessary precautions, Currie insists that, “the central idea is that students have animals they can view as their own.” This unique class component also presents special challenges to the instructor.

One of the biggest problems Currie faces is, “finding a balance … dealing with a range of abilities so that everyone stands a reasonable chance of getting through [the course].”
With so much responsibility resting on the students and the instructor alike, one might be amazed to learn that the program loses very few students to other majors, and typically gains more students than they lose. Currie attributes this to, “a tradition within the department to pay a lot of attention to students. We [professors] do not see teaching as something we ‘have’ to do.”

Currie feels that Cornell’s animal science major is one of the premiere programs in the country, which he credits mainly to the capabilities of the students. Laura Gonzalez ’10, an animal science major, said, “these special learning experiences will better prepare me for vet school … the animal sciences program is one of the main reasons I chose to come to Cornell.”

Currie said that Cornell students who work at the barn and wish to pursue a veterinary career are better prepared than other students. “If they were at a liberal arts school they might not have their first contact with animals until they reach veterinary school,” he said.

But aside from the preparation students may receive for their post undergraduate degrees, Currie said that the main reason the animals exist at Cornell is so that everyone can, “observe them to see their behaviors and to learn that pigs are going to chew your sneakers.”