Giving The Utmost To The Undergrads

Students get hands on experience with animals in the Campus Farm facility.

Image Credit: Edwin Remsberg

June 16, 2014

While some kids get the opportunity to raise farm animals their entire life, it took Kelly Brower until college to get the chance to train a dairy heifer for Ag Day at the University of Maryland. It was an opportunity that is just one of the perks of being a student in the University of Maryland’s Department of Animal and Avian Sciences.

More important perks of the program – an 80 percent acceptance rate to veterinarian school for those that apply, an on-campus farm, a new aquaculture lab, and a new high-tech applied anatomy/physiology lab.

In fact, the Department of Animal and Avian Sciences is experiencing the results of its program perks with an enrollment that has nearly doubled in  the past five years, according to Libby Dufour, assistant director of the undergraduate program for animal science. Current enrollment sits at 280, up from 180 five years ago.

“A large part of our increased number is due to the reputation of the University of Maryland but also with the reputation of our program specifically,” Dufour said. Nationally, 50 percent of students who apply are eventually accepted into veterinary schools. The program here shatters that average with 80 percent of the students from the University of Maryland’s Animal and Avian Sciences who apply to veterinary school being admitted. “Part of that is that the University of Maryland attracts a high quality student and the standards for admittance have increased. The student body as a whole for UMD is improving in quality,” Dufour said. 

The Department of Animal and Avian Sciences formed in 1997 with the merger of the animal, dairy, and poultry science departments. Animal science is the study of domesticated animals used for food, biomedical research, and leisure. Animal Science also has a graduate program offering research programs and options in equine studies and laboratory animal management. The opportunities here are not just textbooks and classroom seminars. There is real hands-on work being done by students.

According to Dufour, nearly 70 percent of the incoming freshmen to the program start with an eye to veterinarian school. However, personalized faculty advisors working individually with students help them to see all types of options available in the field in addition to becoming veterinarians. “We assign a faculty advisor and it is mandatory that students meet with that advisor each semester before signing up for classes. They develop a relationship with that advisor to find out about new research opportunities. That is one thing we hear is that the larger majors don’t have the staff to advise students with the personalized advising we offer,” Dufour said.

Brower, who came to UMD from Gaithersburg, said her advisor helped her to determine that she enjoyed the research side of the profession. “I decided I really liked teaching and found out I could work on the research side,” she said, adding she plans to work in the animal research sector before heading to graduate school.

One of the draws for Brower to the program was the integration of the department’s barn with the class work and the proximity of that barn to her studies. “The barn is located right next to the Animal Science building. At other universities I visited, the barn was further away giving you less daily interaction,” Brower said. “I knew I liked horses but I discovered I like cows too. I grew up not very rural and coming to school, learning and interacting with the two dairy cows on campus taught me a lot about these animals.”

An on-campus farm is pretty unusual for a large suburban/urban university, according to Dufour. “We are one of the only large sub urban/urban institutions with a farm on campus and it is an important part of our teaching lab. For us it is a huge recruiting tool,” Dufour said.

Department students are able to interact with the farm animals, which are incorporated in the coursework. They can exhibit them on Ag Day and the equestrian club members are the primary caretakers of the horses. “Many of our students tell us the farm was the deciding factor for them coming here,” Dufour said.

Another draw for students is a new lab for anatomy/physiology classes complete with new specimen tables, microscopes, and a flat screen TV for interactive classwork. Also, the department’s aquaculture lab, where students raise populations of fish and are able to work hands-on with them, has been expanded to more than double the size of the class.

A large number of elective courses are offered each semester as well. Three to five selections are available for students, which is unusual for departments nation-wide. A new course offered for the first time drew many students interested in veterinary sciences. The “Love Me, Hate Me, Use Me, Save Me” course gives conflicting views of animals and was an approved course for history and social science majors. “It looks at the evolution of human and animal relationships and is a scientific debate. It’s a cool new course,” Dufour said.

Another introduction to veterinary sciences course was new this year giving a hard science-based approach to what students should expect if they are going into veterinary medicine. The school’s proximity to the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Agriculture Library are other lures for students looking at unique research and internship opportunities.

This year’s graduating class of 56 students with the Animal Science major included many who graduated with top honors from the University.