There's a Heifer in Your Tank

    An animal science course mixes research with comedy to answer the big questions of animal husbandry and management

    By Justin Bell on February 27, 2013

    A simple video, a simple message: sheep can’t be left on their backs too long or their stomach can crush their lungs and they will die.

    The message comes from Animal Science 200 students Stacey Arsenault and Melanie Boros who produced a light-hearted two-minute claymation video explaining why the lovable farm animals shouldn’t be left unattended.

    It’s comedy mixed with learning — natural bedfellows for the Animal Sciences 200 class, where students learn about the basics of animal production and management while improving their presentation skills. But Animal Science 200 also goes by another name, one most people at the U of A will recognize: There’s a Heifer in Your Tank.

    For the past eight years, students in the course have probed the great questions of animal husbandry and production, such as why do pigs like truffles and how many jugs of milk does a cow produce in one day.

    The Swine Mating Game

    A student explains all you ever wanted to know about how pigs reproduce.

    The presentations are the brainchild of Prof. Frank Robinson, vice-provost and dean of students, who teaches the class. Almost a decade ago, he came up with the idea of having students answer questions through interactive presentations as a way to include more undergraduate research in the course. While not traditional research, students still have to survey the available material and synthesize it in order to give a succinct presentation, helping them develop skills they will need throughout their academic careers.

    “It didn’t turn out the way I thought it would,” said Robinson. “Originally, I thought [the students] would use Powerpoint and animations. But the very first time, one group put humour into it.”

    That first group presentation explained how far a car could travel on methane, a natural gas produced by livestock, and gave the course its name. It also kicked off what would become one of the most popular classes on campus.

    Today only half the students in the class are coming from an agriculture background or are interested in continuing with other animal sciences courses. The rest are a combination of arts, science, physical education, nursing and business students, all of whom are coming for the interactive nature of the course.

    “The thing that surprised me was the fact that enrollment would grow. Then I stared realizing people weren’t necessarily taking it for the content; it was the process,” said Robinson. “We had a lot of students who would take the class and not leave. They would transfer into our faculty and see there was reliance on science rather than memorizing things from a textbook.”

    Why Turkeys Can

    Students answer the age-old question: why can't turkeys mate?

    There have also been changes in the student projects. Early presentations were performed on stage and soon became a hot ticket item on campus with massive student turnout. Then came sponsorship and fundraising, and the move to video and the internet.

    Sponsorship allowed Robinson to set up a website and hire a professional video crew, Townend Films, to help students produce their final projects. Now many of the students' videos are available online.

    “If you look at the number of views some of them have, some are in the hundreds of viewings,” said Robinson. “The way I look at it is if a student wrote a term paper, would they go home for Christmas and say, ‘I want to you to read my term paper.’ They wouldn’t have 900 views of their term paper.”

    Along with Robinson, Martin Zuidhof, ’91 BSc, ’93 MSc, ’04 PhD, co-teaches the class, bringing his expertise in supply management to supplement Robinson’s knowledge of animal physiology.

    “Probably one of the biggest things that we want to do is connect people with where their food comes from,” said Zuidhof. “There are a lot of myths about how food is raised, particularly animals raised for food.”

    Paired with a little bit of humour, it makes an incredibly popular learning device.

    Writer Justin Bell is a University of Alberta student, majoring in history, who hopes to graduate with his Bachelor of Arts degree this spring.